Bacterial sigma factors combine with the catalytic core RNA polymerase to direct the process of transcription initiation through sequence-specific interactions with the -10 and -35 elements of promoter DNA. In the absence of core RNA polymerase, the DNA-binding function of sigma is autoinhibited by its own N-terminal 90 amino acids (region 1.1), putatively by a direct interaction with conserved region 4.2, which binds the -35 promoter element. In the present work, this mechanism of autoinhibition was studied by using a combination of NMR spectroscopy and segmental isotopic labeling of a sigma70-like subunit from Thermotoga maritima. Our data argue strongly against a high-affinity interaction between these two domains. Instead we suggest that autoinhibition of DNA binding occurs through an indirect steric and/or electrostatic mechanism. More generally, the present work illustrates the power of segmental isotopic labeling for probing molecular interactions in large proteins by NMR.