Previous studies of Staphylococcus aureus transposon insertion mutants showing decreased methicillin or teicoplanin resistance have suggested a role for the RNA polymerase alternative sigma factor SigB in the expression of resistance to these antibiotics. A knockout mutation was created in the S. aureus strain COL sigB gene and its influence on oxacillin and vancomycin resistance was studied in a variety of parental backgrounds. Typically, sigB mutants of methicillin-resistant strains had oxacillin minimum inhibitory concentrations (MICs) one-half of their parent strains. The effect of the sigB mutation appeared to be more dramatic when assessed by population analysis profiles or by growth in liquid culture in shaking flasks than by MIC determinations. Oxacillin MICs of COL and the COLDeltasigB mutant were 400 and 200 mg/l, respectively, by conventional determination and 800 and 100-200 mg/l from population analysis profiles. The COLDeltasigB mutant strain was significantly more inhibited by a range of oxacillin concentrations in a shake flask culture than strain COL. Mutation of sigB caused a decrease in vancomycin resistance in two laboratory derived glycopeptide-intermediate S. aureus strains. The results suggest that some protein products whose expression is controlled by SigB play a role in resistance to cell wall-active antibiotics.