In all organisms, multi-subunit replicases are responsible for the accurate duplication of genetic material during cellular division. Initiator proteins control the onset of DNA replication and direct the assembly of replisomal components through a series of precisely timed protein-DNA and protein-protein interactions. Recent structural studies of the bacterial protein DnaA have helped to clarify the molecular mechanisms underlying initiator function, and suggest that key structural features of cellular initiators are universally conserved. Moreover, it appears that bacteria use a diverse range of regulatory strategies dedicated to tightly controlling replication initiation; in many cases, these mechanisms are intricately connected to the activities of DnaA at the origin of replication. This Review presents an overview of both the mechanism and regulation of bacterial DNA replication initiation, with emphasis on the features that are similar in eukaryotic and archaeal systems.