The genetic basis for the biosynthesis of large polypeptide antibiotics such as nisin has not been explained so far. We show here that the structural gene epiA encoding the antibiotic epidermin from Staphylococcus epidermidis is located on a 54-kilobase plasmid and codes for a 52-amino-acid prepeptide, which is processed to the tetracyclic 21-peptide amide antibiotic. The mature sequence of epidermin corresponds to the C-terminal 22-peptide segment of pre-epidermin and contains the precursor amino acids Ser, Thr and Cys, from which the unusual amino-acid constituents are derived. The more lipophilic epidermin is cleaved at a hydrophilic turn between Arg-1 and Ile+1 from the N-terminal segment-30 to -1, which probably assumes a partially amphiphilic alpha-helix conformation. We propose that the N-terminus (-30 to -1) plays a cooperative role during modification reactions and prevents toxicity of the mature epidermin to the producing strain before the antibiotic is cleaved off and secreted.