The Fur (ferric uptake regulation) protein is a negative regulator of the aerobactin operon and of several other siderophore-mediated, high-affinity iron transport systems in Escherichia coli. The purified Fur protein and a plasmid containing a lacZ fusion to the aerobactin operon were used in conjunction with an in vitro coupled transcription/translation system to demonstrate that the Fur protein requires Fe(II) or certain other divalent metals as a cofactor to negatively regulate expression of the aerobactin operon. In a second set of experiments, using a restriction site protection assay, Fur was shown to bind to and block the aerobactin promoter in a metal-dependent fashion. It is concluded that Fur acts as a classical negative repressor that, under in vivo conditions, uses ionic Fe(II) as a corepressor. Our results support the hypothesis [Williams, R.J.P. (1982) FEBS Lett. 140, 3-10] that prokaryotic cells may contain a standing pool of free or loosely bound Fe(II) that is capable of acting in a regulatory capacity.