During biosynthesis of bacteriochlorophyll or chlorophyll, three protein subunits of 140, 70, and 42 kDa interact to insert [Mg.sup.2+] into protoporphyrin IX. The semidominant Chlorina-125, -157, and -161 mutants in barley are deficient in this step and accumulate protoporphyrin IX after feeding on 5-aminolevulinate. Chlorina-125, -157, and -161 are allelic to the recessive xantha-h mutants and contain G559A, G806A, and C271T mutations, respectively. These mutations cause single amino acid substitutions in residues that are conserved in all known primary structures of the 42-kDa subunit. In vitro complementation and reconstitution of Mg-chelatase activity show that the 42-kDa subunits are defective in the semidominant Chlorina mutants. A mutated protein is maintained in the Chlorina plastids, unlike in the xantha-h plastids. Heterozygous Chlorina seedlings have 25-50% of the Mg-chelatase activity of wild-type seedlings. Codominant expression of active and inactive 42-kDa subunits in heterozygous Chlorina seedlings is likely to produce two types of heterodimers between the strongly interacting 42-kDa and 70-kDa subunits. Reduced Mg-chelatase activity is explained by the capacity of heterodimers consisting of mutated 42-kDa and wild-type 70-kDa protein to bind to the 140-kDa subunit. The 42-kDa subunit is similar to chaperones that refold denatured polypeptides with respect to its ATP-to-ADP exchange activity and its ability to generate ATPase activity with the 70.kDa subunit. We hypothesize that the association of the 42-kDa subunit with the 70-kDa subunit allows them to form a specific complex with the 140-kDa subunit and that this complex inserts [Mg.sup.2+] into protoporphyrin IX.