Three characteristic footprinting patterns resulted from probing the Escherichia coli RNA polymerase T7 A1 promoter complex by hydroxyl radicals in the temperature range between 4 degrees C and 37 degrees C. These were attributed to the closed complex, the intermediate complex and the open complex. In the closed complex, the RNA polymerase protects the DNA only at one side over five helical turns. In the intermediate complex, the range of the protected area is extended further downstream by two helical turns. This region of the DNA helix is fully protected, indicating that the RNA polymerase wraps around the DNA between base positions -13 and +20. In the open complex, a stretch between base positions -7 and +2, which was fully protected in the intermediate complex, becomes accessible towards hydroxyl radicals but only in the codogenic strand, indicating that the DNA strands are unwound. Our data suggest that only the DNA downstream of the promoter is involved in this unwinding process.