The trfA gene of the broad-host-range plasmid RK2 encodes two proteins of 43- and 32-kDa by initiating translation at either of two in-phase AUG codons in a single open reading frame. At least one of these proteins is essential for replication of RK2 derivatives. In order to study the role of the 43-kDa protein, Bal31 deletions into the 5' end of the trfA gene were constructed and incorporated into minimal RK2 replicons. When examined in Escherichia coli, replication and maintenance properties of plasmids encoding only the 32-kDa protein were indistinguishable from those of plasmids encoding both the 43- and the 32-kDa proteins. In four other gram-negative hosts deletion of sequences encoding only the 43-kDa protein did not have a substantial effect on plasmid establishment or stable maintenance. However, in Pseudomonas aeruginosa, deletion of 43-kDa coding sequences greatly reduced the efficiency of plasmid maintenance, suggesting a host-specific role for the 43-kDa TrfA protein in RK2 replication.