The Bacillus subtilis 168 genome encodes seven extracytoplasmic function (ECF) RNA polymerase sigma factors of unknown physiological function. The sigM(yhdM) gene, encoding an ECF sigma factor sigma M, is essential for growth and survival in nutrient broth (NB) containing 1.4 M NaCl. Strains insertionally inactivated in the sigM gene form aberrantly shaped cells, which swell and lyse spontaneously during growth in NB medium containing increased levels (0.35-0.7 M) of a wide range of different salts. The sigM gene was co-transcribed with the yhdL and yhdK genes with transcription initiating from two promoters, PA and PM. The transcript from PM was not detected in a sigM mutant, indicating that the expression of sigM was positively autoregulated. Expression of sigM was maximal during exponential growth and was increased by 50% in NB medium containing 0.7 M NaCl. The activity of sigma M is negatively regulated by the proteins encoded by the yhdL and yhdK genes.