The synthesis of the DNA polymerase of bacteriophage T4 is autogenously regulated. This protein (gp43), the product of gene 43, binds to a segment of its mRNA that overlaps its ribosome binding site, and thereby blocks translation. We have determined the Kd of the gp43-operator interaction to be 1.0 x 10(-9) M. The minimum operator sequence to which gp43 binds consists of 36 nucleotides that include a hairpin (containing a 5 base-pair helix and an 8 nucleotide loop) and a single-stranded segment that contains the Shine-Dalgarno sequence of the ribosome binding site. In the distantly related bacteriophage RB69 there is a remarkable conservation of this hairpin and loop sequence at the ribosome binding site of its DNA polymerase gene. We have constructed phage operator mutants that overproduce gp43 in vivo, yet are unchanged for in vivo replication rates and phage yield. We present data that show that the replicative and autoregulatory functions are mutually exclusive activities of this polymerase, and suggest a model for gp43 synthesis that links autoregulation to replicative demand.