Hybridization to a PCR product derived from conserved sigma-factor sequences led to the identification of two Sinorhizobium meliloti DNA segments that display significant sequence similarity to the family of rpoH genes encoding the sigma(32) (RpoH) heat-shock transcription factors. The first gene, rpoH1, complements an Escherichia coli rpoH mutation. Cells containing an rpoH1 mutation are impaired in growth at 37 degrees C under free-living conditions and are defective in nitrogen fixation during symbiosis with alfalfa. A plasmid-borne rpoH1-gusA fusion increases in expression upon entry of the culture into the stationary phase of growth. The second gene, designated rpoH2, is 42% identical to the S. meliloti rpoH1 gene. Cells containing an rpoH2 mutation have no apparent phenotype under free-living conditions or during symbiosis with the host plant alfalfa. An rpoH2-gusA fusion increases in expression during the stationary phase of growth. The presence of two rpoH-like sequences in S. meliloti is reminiscent of the situation in Bradyrhizobium japonicum, which has three rpoH genes.