Mycobacteria have a unique outer membrane (OM) that is thicker than any other known biological membrane. Nutrients cross this permeability barrier by diffusion through porins. MspA is the major porin of Mycobacterium smegmatis. In this study we showed that three paralogues of MspA, namely MspB, MspC and MspD are also porins. However, only the mspA and mspC genes were expressed in the wild-type strain. None of the single deletion mutants displayed a significant OM permeability defect except for the mspA mutant. Deletion of the mspA gene caused activation of transcription of mspB and/or mspD in three independent strains by unknown chromosomal mutations. It is concluded that mspB and mspD provide backup porins for M. smegmatis. This also indicated that a minimal porin-mediated OM permeability is essential for survival of M. smegmatis. Electron microscopy in combination with quantitative image analysis of protein gels revealed that the number of pores per cell dropped from 2400 to 800 and 150 for the ΔmspA and ΔmspA ΔmspC mutant (ML10) respectively. The very low number of pores correlated well with the at least 20-fold lower channel activity of detergent extracts of the ML10 strain and its 15- and 75-fold lower permeability to nutrient molecules such as serine and glucose respectively. The amount of Msp porin and the OM permeability of the triple porin mutant lacking mspA, mspC and mspD was not altered. The growth rate of M. smegmatis dropped drastically with its porin-mediated OM permeability in contrast to porin mutants of Escherichia coli. These results show that porin-mediated influx of nutrients is a major determinant of the growth rate of M. smegmatis. © 2005 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.