Apparent plasmid instability, i.e. progressive plasmid loss in a bacterial culture growing in the absence of selection for the plasmid, in an Escherichia coli recBC sbcBC mutant was investigated with two different ColE1 derivatives (pMB9 and pBR322) and a mini-F plasmid. The instability was most striking for pMB9 and much less, but still significant, for pBR322 and the mini-F. It was also dependent upon a subset of the genes involved in the RecF recombination pathway: in addition to the previously reported recA, recF and recJ mutations, a recO and a recQ mutation showed a total and a partial suppression, respectively, of the instability. Other recF-family mutations, recN and ruv, were without such an effect. Population analyses of the recBC sbcBC strain carrying pMB9 or the mini-F, as carried out by plating and Coulter counting, revealed marked loss of viability in plasmid-carrying cells, strongly implicating plasmid-mediated cell death in the apparent defect in plasmid maintenance. Analysis of intracellular plasmid DNA by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis combined with the in-agarose cell lysis technique showed that the instability was associated with the formation of plasmid multimers, with a good correlation between the degree of the instability and the amount of the multimers. The multimer formation was also dependent on the same subset of the RecF pathway genes as in the instability phenomenon. These results strongly suggest that the lethality is somehow caused by the multimer formation. Various DNase treatments of cell lysates showed that such multimers of pMB9 DNA comprised molecules of exonuclease-sensitive and exonuclease-resistant types. It was inferred that the former class, which showed electrophoretic mobilities corresponding to plain linear duplexes of approximately 200 x 10(3) to 2200 x 10(3) base-pairs, represented linear multimers possibly carrying circular structures at one end. The latter class, which remained in the origin, was thought to consist of circular multimers and/or linear multimers protected by circular structures at both ends against exonucleolytic attack.