The gene cluster (rfb region) which determines the biosynthesis of the Shigella flexneri O-antigen of the Y serotype specificity was cloned from a S. flexneri serotype 2a strain. Two plasmids, pPM2212 and pPM2213, which conferred O-antigen biosynthesis were generated from separate cosmid clones by deletion with Clal. These plasmids expressed O-antigen in Escherichia coli K12 like that of the parental strain, as assessed by reactions to antisera in colony and Western immunoblots, sensitivity to bacteriophage Sf6, and by silver staining of lipopolysaccharides separated by sodium dodecyl sulphate/polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. These plasmids also mediated O-antigen expression in an E. coli K12 rfb-delete background, indicating that all the necessary genes have been cloned. A detailed restriction map of the region has been constructed and analysis of various subclones has allowed the limits of the coding region for O-antigen biosynthesis to be defined to a maximum of 11 kb. Expression of these plasmids demonstrates a novel phenotype associated with control of lipopolysaccharide chain length. The gene(s) responsible maps adjacent to, but separate from, those associated with the biosynthesis of the O-antigen unit. Analysis of plasmid-encoded proteins in minicells and maxicells has facilitated the construction of a physical map. Finally, plasmid pPM-2212 was used to probe a collection of S. flexneri serotypes by Southern hybridization. With the exception of serotype 6, which appears to be unrelated, a similar pattern was found in all serotypes.