The time required for transcription of the lacZ gene in Escherichia coli was determined during exponential growth and under conditions, when the bacterium was exposed to partial isoleucine starvation. To do this, RNA was extracted from the cells at 10 s intervals following induction and quantified by Northern hybridization with probes complementary to either the beginning or the end of the lacZ mRNA. The time lag between inducer addition and the appearance of a hybridization signal at the 'late' probe represents the transit time for RNA polymerase on the lacZ gene, and this parameter and the known length of the transcribed sequence were used to calculate the lacZ mRNA chain growth-rate. The transcription elongation rate was c. 43 nucleotides s-1 during exponential growth and decreased abruptly to c. 20 nucleotides s-1 in a relA+ strain after the onset of isoleucine starvation, when massive concentrations of guanosine tetraphosphate (ppGpp) accumulated in the cells. The starvation condition did not affect initiation of transcription at the lac-promoter, but a substantial fraction of the initiated lacZ mRNA chains was never completed. For the rel+ strain the polarity was moderate, since c. 25% of the initiated lacZ mRNA' chains were continued into full-length mRNAs, but for the relA strain the polarity was so strong that no completed lacZ mRNA could be detected. The protein chain elongation rates decreased from 13 amino acids (aa) s-1 in the unperturbed growth phase to approximately 6 as s-1, when the cells starved for isoleucine. In combination, these results suggest that ppGpp plays a major role in maintaining the coupling between transcription and translation during the downshift by inhibiting mRNA chain elongation. The implications of this result for the control of stable RNA synthesis during the stringent response are discussed.