Neisseria meningitidis utilization of human serum transferrin (hTF)-bound iron is an important pathogenicity determinant. The efficiency of this system would clearly be increased through preferential binding of diferric hTF over the iron-free form. To characterize this process, functionally active meningococcal transferrin-binding protein A (TbpA) and TbpB have been purified from N. meningitidis using a novel purification procedure. The association of isolated Tbps and Tbps in the presence of hTF was investigated by gel filtration. Co-purified TbpA + B formed a complex of molecular mass 300 kDa which bound 1-2 molecules of hTF. Purified TbpA formed a complex of 200 kDa, indicating association as a dimer, whereas TbpB aggregated to form multimers of variable sizes. On recombining TbpA and TbpB, a stable complex of equivalent size to copurified TbpA + B was formed. This complex may be composed of a single TbpA dimer and 1 molecule of TbpB. The technique of surface plasmon resonance (SPR) was used to demonstrate clearly that TbpB of either high (85 kDa) or low (68 kDa) molecular-mass preferentially bound diferric hTF in comparison with iron-free hTF. This selectivity was not observed with TbpA, but was found at low levels with co-purified TbpA + B. Individual TbpA and TbpB, recombined in a 1:1 molecular ratio, showed iron-mediated discriminatory binding at an intermediate level. SPR was also used to show that TbpA and TbpB bound to distinct regions of hTF, and that prior saturation with TbpB reduced subsequent TbpA binding. The results demonstrated that hTF bound more TbpA than TbpB, with an approximate ratio of 2:1. We have demonstrated that in vitro, TbpA + B exists as a receptor complex composed of a TbpA dimer and one molecule of TbpB, and that TbpB selectively binds diferric hTF. We propose that, in vivo, TbpA and TbpB also exist as a receptor complex, with TbpB selectively binding diferric hTF, bringing it close to TbpA, the transmembrane component, where the ferric iron can be transported to the periplasm.