The nucleotide sequence of rpoS, the gene for the stress sigma factor, was determined in 13 different K12 strains of Escherichia coli. The results indicate that the original K12 isolate carried an amber mutation at codon 33, which in 50% of the derivatives is mutated by a single base substitution to a coding triplet, in most cases to CAG encoding glutamine. The six non-K12 strains examined here had GAG, encoding glutamate, in position 33. The two most divergent strains had three and seven neutral substitutions in rpoS and carried insertions of 2100 and 2900 bp, respectively, just downstream of the gene. The genetic variations in rpoS were compared with the variation in RpoS-related phenotypes, by measuring catalase (KatE) activity, glycogen accumulation and acid phosphatase levels, and a katEp-gfp fusion was used to visualise katE gene transcription. The RpoS phenotypes of the six rpoS(33E) strains varied significantly more than that of the K12 rpoS(33Q) strains, especially with respect to acid phosphatase levels. This was due to the absence of the gene for the transcriptional activator AppY from four of the rpoS(33E) strains, while all the K12 derivatives carried this gene. When cloned into a LacI-controlled vector and compared in a rpoS::Tn 10 background, the RpoS(33Q) and RpoS(33E) variants showed the same activity.