Bacterial and fungal members of the ubiquitous nucleobase-ascorbate transporter (NAT/NCS2) family use the NAT signature motif, a conserved 11-amino acid sequence between amphipathic helices TM9a and TM9b, to define function and selectivity of the purine binding site. To examine the role of flanking helices TM9a, TM9b, and TM8, we employed Cys-scanning analysis of the xanthine-specific homolog YgfO from Escherichia coli. Using a functional mutant devoid of Cys residues (C-less), each amino acid residue in sequences (259)FLVVGTIYLLSVLEAVGDITATAMVSRRPIQGEEYQSRLKGGVLADGLVSVIASAV(314) and (342)TIAVMLVILGLFP(354) including these TMs (underlined) was replaced individually with Cys, except the irreplaceable Glu-272 and Asp-304, which had been studied previously. Of 67 single Cys mutants, 55 accumulate xanthine to 35-140% of the steady state observed with C-less, five (I265C, D276C, I277C, G299C, L350C) accumulate to low levels (10-20%) and seven (T278C, A279C, T280C, A281C, G305C, G351C, P354C) show negligible expression in the membrane. Extensive mutagenesis reveals that a carboxyl group is needed at Asp-276 for high activity and that D276E differs from wild type as it recognizes 8-methylxanthine (K(i) 79 μm) but fails to recognize 2-thioxanthine, 3-methylxanthine or 6-thioxanthine; bulky replacements of Ala-279 or Thr-280 and replacements of Gly-305, Gly-351, or Pro-354 impair activity or expression. Single Cys mutants V261C, A273C, G275C, and S284C are sensitive to inactivation by N-ethylmaleimide and sensitivity of G275C (IC(50) 15 μm) is enhanced in the presence of substrate. The data suggest that residues crucial for the transport mechanism cluster in two conserved motifs, at the cytoplasmic end of TM8 (EXXGDXXAT) and in TM9a (GXXXDG).