Seven different species of the RNA polymerase sigma subunit exist in Escherichia coli, each binding to a single species of the core enzyme and thereby directing transcription of a specific set of genes. To test the sigma competition model in the global regulation of gene transcription, all seven E.coli sigma subunits have been purified and compared for their binding affinities to the same core RNA polymerase (E). In the presence of a fixed amount of sigma(70), the principal sigma for growth-related genes, the level of Esigma(70) holoenzyme formation increased linearly with the increase in core enzyme level, giving an apparent K:(d) for the core enzyme of 0.26 nM. Mixed reconstitution experiments in the presence of a fixed amount of core enzyme and increasing amounts of an equimolar mixture of all seven sigma subunits indicated that sigma(70) is strongest in terms of core enzyme binding, followed by sigma(N), sigma(F), sigma(E)/sigma(FecI), sigma(H) and sigma(S) in decreasing order. The orders of core binding affinity between sigma(70) and sigma(N) and between sigma(70) and sigma(H) were confirmed by measuring the replacement of one core-associated sigma by another sigma subunit. Taken together with the intracellular sigma levels, we tried to estimate the number of each holoenzyme form in growing E. coli cells.