TrmB is the transcriptional repressor for the gene cluster of the trehalose/maltose ABC transporter of the hyperthermophilic archaea Thermococcus litoralis and Pyrococcus furiosus (malE or TM operon), with maltose and trehalose acting as inducers. We found that TrmB (the protein is identical in both organisms) also regulated the transcription of genes encoding a separate maltodextrin ABC transporter in P. furiosus (mdxE or MD operon) with maltotriose, longer maltodextrins and sucrose acting as inducers, but not with maltose or trehalose. In vitro transcription of the malE and the mdxE operons was inhibited by TrmB binding to the different operator sequences. Inhibition of the TM operon was released by maltose and trehalose whereas inhibition of the MD operon was released by maltotriose and larger maltodextrins as well as by sucrose. Scanning mutagenesis of the TM operator revealed the role of the palindromic TACTNNNAGTA sequence for TrmB recognition. TrmB exhibits a broad spectrum of sugar-binding specificity, binding maltose, sucrose, maltotriose and trehalose in decreasing order of affinity, half-maximal binding occurring at 20, 60, 250 and 500 microM substrate concentration respectively. Of all substrates, only maltose shows sigmoidal binding characteristics with a Hill coefficient of 2. As measured by molecular sieve chromatography and cross-linking TrmB behaved as dimer in dilute buffer solution at room temperature. We conclude that TrmB acts as a bifunctional transcriptional regulator acting on two different promoters and being differentially controlled by binding to different sugars. We believe this to represent a novel strategy of prokaryotic transcription regulation.