The sequence and gene organization of the ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes of Leishmania major Friedlin (LmjF) were determined. Interestingly, the rDNA repeat unit contained a duplicated 526 bp fragment at the 3' end of the unit with two copies of the LSUepsilon rRNA gene. Our results suggested the presence of only approximately 24 copies of the rRNA unit per diploid genome in LmjF. Repetitive elements (IGSRE) of 63 bp occurred in the intergenic spacer (IGS) between the LSUepsilon and the SSU rRNA genes. Among the different rDNA units, the region containing the IGSRE fluctuated in length from approximately 1.3 to approximately 18 kb. The transcription initiation site (TIS) of the rRNA unit was localized by primer extension to 1043 bp upstream of the SSU gene and 184 bp downstream of the IGSRE. Sequence comparison among several species of Leishmania showed a high degree of conservation around the TIS. Moreover, the IGSRE also showed considerable similarity between Leishmania species. In transient transfection assays, a fragment containing the TIS directed a 164- to 178-fold increase in luciferase activity over the no-insert control, indicating the presence of a promoter within this 391 bp fragment. The LmjF promoter region was also functional in other species of Leishmania. Nuclear run-on analyses demonstrated that only the rRNA-coding strand is transcribed, downstream of this RNA polymerase I (pol I) promoter. These experiments also suggested that transcription terminates upstream of the IGSRE.