Escherichia coli integration host factor (IHF) is a small dimeric protein that binds to a specific DNA consensus sequence and produces DNA bending. Transcription from the bacteriophage lambda pL promoter is stimulated three- to fourfold by IHF both in vivo and in vitro. IHF binds with high-affinity to two tandem sites located just upstream from the pL promoter and enhances the formation of RNA polymerase-promoter closed complexes. The rate of isomerization to open complex is not influenced by IHF. IHF may stimulate recognition of pL by one or more of several mechanisms: (1) by bending DNA; (2) by making protein-protein contacts with RNA polymerase; or (3) by occluding a competing promoter upstream from pL.