The spores of Bacillus anthracis, the agent of anthrax disease, germinate within professional phagocytes, such as murine macrophage-like RAW264.7 cells and alveolar macrophages. We identified a cluster of germination genes extending for 3608 nucleotides between the pag and atxA genes on the B. anthracis virulence plasmid pXO1. The three predicted proteins (40, 55 and 37 kDa in size) have significant sequence similarities to B. subtilis, B. cereus and B. megaterium germination proteins. Northern blot analysis of total RNA from sporulating cells indicated that the gerX locus was organized as a tricistronic operon (gerXB, gerXA and gerXC). Primer extension analysis identified a major potential transcriptional start site 31 bp upstream from the translation initiation codon of gerXB. Expression of the gerX operon was studied using a gerXB-lacZ transcriptional fusion. Expression began 2.5-3 h after the initiation of sporulation and was detected exclusively in the forespore compartment. A gerX null mutant was constructed. It was less virulent than the parental strain and did not germinate efficiently in vivo or in vitro within phagocytic cells. These data strongly suggest that gerX-encoded proteins are involved in the virulence of B. anthracis.