When a staining technique using phosphotungstic acid (PTA) in 10% (w/v) chromic acid was applied to cells of Escherichia coli, the periplasmic space was seen as a dark 15-nm-thick layer of uniform appearance and constant width. Our observations are consistent with peptidoglycan being the main material stained. Isolated sacculi as well as purified peptidoglycan (protein free) were also stained by the same procedure, the thickness of the peptidoglycan being 8.8 +/- 1.8 and 6.6 +/- 1.5 nm, respectively. The increased thickness of the PTA-stained layer in stationary phase cells correlated well with the increased thickness of isolated sacculi or purified peptidoglycan and with the increased amount of peptidoglycan in such cells. Thickness measurements on isolated peptidoglycan were compatible with a two to three layer structure for material from exponential phase cells and with a four to five layer structure for that from stationary phase cells. Furthermore, the results indicated an uneven distribution of peptidoglycan material in the periplasmic space, the peptidoglycan spanning the space from the inner to the outer membrane.