The vacuolar ATPase of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae acidifies the vacuolar lumen and generates an electrochemical gradient across the vacuole membrane. We have investigated the role of compartment acidification of the vacuolar system in the sorting of vacuolar proteins. Strains with chromosomal disruptions of genes (delta vat) encoding the A (69 x 10(3) M(r)), B (57 x 10(3) M(r)) or c (16 x 10(3) M(r)) subunits of the vacuolar ATPase accumulate and secrete precursor forms of the soluble vacuolar hydrolases carboxypeptidase Y and proteinase A. A kinetic analysis suggests that these precursor proteins accumulate in, and are secreted from, the Golgi complex or post-Golgi vesicles. In addition, subcellular fractionation shows that vacuolar hydrolase-invertase hybrid proteins are inefficiently localized to the vacuole in delta vat strains. This result suggests that the vat mutations cause a steady-state defect in vacuolar protein sorting. The vat mutations also affect the sorting of vacuolar membrane proteins. Precursor forms of alkaline phosphatase are accumulated in vat mutant cells, but to a lesser extent than is seen for the soluble vacuolar hydrolases. This finding, coupled with the insensitivity of alkaline phosphatase to the ATPase inhibitor bafilomycin A1, suggests that vacuolar membrane protein sorting is less sensitive to changes in lumenal pH when compared with the targeting of soluble vacuolar proteins. These results indicate that acidification of the vacuolar system is important for efficient sorting of soluble proteins to the vacuole.