Proteus mirabilis, a motile gram-negative bacterium, is a principal cause of urinary tract infections in patients with functional or anatomical abnormalities of the urinary tract or those with urinary catheters in place. Thus far, virulence factors including urease, flagella, haemolysin, various fimbriae, IgA protease and a deaminase have been characterized based on the phenotypic traits conferred by these proteins. In this study, an attempt was made to identify new virulence genes of P. mirabilis that may not have identifiable phenotypes using the recently described technique of signature-tagged mutagenesis. A pool of chromosomal transposon mutants was made through conjugation and kanamycin/tetracycline selection; random insertion was confirmed by Southern blotting of chromosomal DNA isolated from 16 mutants using the aphA gene as a probe. From the total pool, 2.3% (9/397) auxotrophic mutants and 3.5% (14/397) swarming mutants were identified by screening on minimal salts agar and Luria agar plates, respectively. Thirty per cent of the mutants, found to have either no tag or an unamplifiable tag, were removed from the input pool. Then 10(7) c.f.u. from a 96-mutant pool (approximately 10(5) c.f.u. of each mutant) were used as an input pool to transurethrally inoculate seven CBA mice. After 2 d infection, bacteria were recovered from the bladders and kidneys and yielded about 10(5) c.f.u. as an output pool. Dot blot analysis showed that two of the 96 mutants, designated B2 and B5, could not be hybridized by signature tags amplified from the bladder output pool. Interrupted genes from these two mutants were cloned and sequenced. The interrupted gene in B2 predicts a polypeptide of 37.3 kDa that shares amino acid similarity with a putative protease or collagenase precursor. The gene in B5 predicts a polypeptide of 32.6 kDa that is very similar to that encoded by ORF284 of the rpoN operon controlling expression of nitrogen-regulated genes from several bacterial species. The virulence of the two mutants was tested further by co-challenging CBA mice with each mutant and the parental strain. After 1 week of infection, the B2 and B5 mutants were recovered in numbers 100-fold and 1000-fold less than the parental strain, respectively. Using an in vitro assay, it was shown that the B2 mutant had significantly less (P = 0.0001) extracellular protease activity than the wild-type strain. These findings demonstrate that signature-tagged mutagenesis is a viable approach to identify bacterial genes associated with the ability to infect the urinary tract.