Monomolecular layers of lipid extracts of microsomal, mitochondrial outer and inner membranes, and pure lipid species have been used to measure their interaction with apo- and holocytochrome c. Large differences were observed both with respect to the nature and the lipid specificity of the interaction. The initial electrostatic interaction of the hemefree precursor apocytochrome c with anionic phospholipids is followed by penetration of the protein in between the acyl chains. Apocytochrome c shows similar interactions for all anionic lipids tested. In strong contrast the holoprotein discriminates enormously between cardiolipin for which it has a high affinity and phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylinositol for which it has a much lower affinity. For these latter lipids the interaction with cytochrome c is primarily electrostatic. The cytochrome c-cardiolipin interaction shows several unique features which suggest the formation of a specific complex between the two molecules. These properties account for the preference in interaction of the apoprotein with the lipid extract of the outer mitochondrial membrane over that of the endoplasmic reticulum and the large preference of cytochrome c for the inner over that of the outer mitochondrial membrane lipid extract. Only apocytochrome c was able to induce close contacts between monolayers of the mitochondrial outer membrane lipids and vesicles of mitochondrial inner membrane lipids. Experiments with fragments of both protein and unfolding experiments with cytochrome c revealed that the differences in interaction between the two proteins are mainly due to differences in their tertiary structure and not the presence of the heme group itself. The initial unfolded structure of apocytochrome c is responsible for the high penetrative power of the protein and its ability to induce close membrane contact, whereas the folded structure of cytochrome c is responsible for the specific interaction with cardiolipin. The results are discussed in the light of the apocytochrome c import process in mitochondria and suggest that lipid-protein interactions contribute to targeting the precursor toward mitochondria and are important for its translocation across the outer mitochondrial membrane and the final localization of cytochrome c toward the outside of the inner mitochondrial membrane.