The ability of a high frequency (10(-2)) of Escherichia coli to survive prolonged exposure to penicillin antibiotics, called high persistence, is associated with mutations in the hipA gene. The hip operon is located in the chromosomal terminus near dif and consists of two genes, hipA and hipB. The wild-type hipA gene encodes a toxin, whereas hipB encodes a DNA-binding protein that autoregulates expression of the hip operon and binds to HipA to nullify its toxic effects. We have characterized the hipA7 allele, which confers high persistence, and established that HipA7 is non-toxic, contains two mutations (G22S and D291A) and that both mutations are required for the full range of phenotypes associated with hip mutants. Furthermore, expression of hipA7 in the absence of hipB is sufficient to establish the high persistent phenotype, indicating that hipB is not required. There is a strong correlation between the frequency of persister cells generated by hipA7 strains and cell density, with hipA7 strains generating a 20-fold higher frequency of persisters as cultures approach stationary phase. It is also demonstrated that relA knock-outs diminish the high persistent phenotype in hipA7 mutants and that relA spoT knock-outs eliminate high persistence altogether, suggesting that hipA7 facilitates the establishment of the persister state by inducing (p)ppGpp synthesis. Consistent with this proposal, ectopic expression of relA' from a plasmid was shown to increase the number of persistent cells produced by hipA7 relA double mutants by 100-fold or more. A model is presented that postulates that hipA7 increases the basal level of (p)ppGpp synthesis, allowing a significantly greater percentage of cells in a population to assume a persistent, antibiotic-insensitive state by potentiating a rapid transition to a dormant state upon application of stress.