The psbB operon of the spinach plastid chromosome encodes the genes for the 51-kDa chlorophyll a apoprotein (psbB), the 10-kDa phosphoprotein (psbH), both associated with photosystem II, as well as cytochrome b6 (petB) and subunit IV (petD) of the cytochrome b/f complex in the order given. These genes are not expressed coordinately. The RNA pattern of this DNA region is complex and resolves into eighteen major RNA species. Using northern and S1 protection analysis we demonstrate (a) that all RNA species derive from one DNA strand and hybridize in an overlapping fashion; and (b) that they arise by processing rather than by multiple transcription initiation/termination. (c) The operon is bordered by a single prokaryote-like promotor in front of psbB, and by a putative factor-independent terminator with characteristic sequence elements following petD. The terminator appears to function bidirectionally. (d) At least four distinct modification activities operate on the putative primary transcript of 5650 nucleotides and on the processing intermediates, including a novel endonucleolytic activity cleaving within a characteristic hexanucleotide motif, 3'-exonucleolytic activity at discrete RNA ends, 5' shortage of mRNA (psbB), and excision of class II intervening sequences (petB and petD). (e) Kinetically, maturation of the primary transcript is largely a stochastic process. (f) Processing results ultimately in the formation of monocistronic mRNAs for each of the two photosystem II polypeptides and a bicistronic mRNA encoding both subunits of the cytochrome b/f complex. We postulate that these RNA species represent the translationally active components in the non-coordinate dark/light expression of these genes. (g) Light is without any noticeable effect on posttranscriptional modification. Under our conditions it appears to operate at a translational rather than a transcriptional or posttranscriptional level indicating that the biogenesis of thylakoid membranes is regulated at various levels.