A model for the domain structure of sigma 54-dependent transcriptional activators, based on sequence data, has been tested by examining the function of truncated and chimaeric proteins. Removal of the N-terminal domain of NtrC abolishes transcriptional activation, indicating that this domain is positively required for activator function. Over-expression of this domain as a separate peptide appears to titrate out the phosphorylating activity of NtrB. Removal of the N-terminal domain of NifA reduces activation 3-4-fold. The residual activity is particularly sensitive to inhibition by NifL, suggesting that the role of the N-terminal domain is to block the action of NifL in derepressing conditions. The C-terminal domain of NtrC showed repressor activity when expressed as a separate peptide. This domain is necessary for activator function even when NtrC binding sites are deleted from promoters. A point mutation in the ATP-binding motif of the NtrC central domain, Ser169 to Ala, also abolished activator function. Exchanging the N-terminal domains of Klebsiella pneumoniae NtrC, NifA and Escherichia coli OmpR, did not produce any hybrid activity, suggesting that N-terminal domains in the native proteins specifically recognize the rest of the molecule.