The suf and isc operons of Escherichia coli have been implicated in Fe-S cluster assembly. However, it has been unclear why E. coli has two systems for Fe-S cluster biosynthesis. We have examined the regulatory characteristics and mutant phenotypes of both operons to discern if the two operons have redundant functions or if their cellular roles are divergent. Both operons are similarly induced by hydrogen peroxide and the iron chelator 2,2'-dipyridyl, although by different mechanisms. Regulation of the isc operon is mediated by IscR, whereas the suf operon requires OxyR and IHF for the response to oxidative stress and Fur for induction by iron starvation. Simultaneous deletion of iscS and most suf genes is synthetically lethal. However, although the suf and isc operons have overlapping functions, they act as distinct complexes because the SufS desulphurase alone cannot substitute for the IscS enzyme. In addition, suf deletion mutants are more sensitive to iron starvation than isc mutants, and the activity of the Fe-S enzyme gluconate dehydratase is diminished in the suf mutant during iron starvation. These findings are consistent with the model that the isc operon encodes the housekeeping Fe-S cluster assembly system in E. coli, whereas the suf operon is specifically adapted to synthesize Fe-S clusters when iron or sulphur metabolism is disrupted by iron starvation or oxidative stress.