The mercury resistance (mer) operons of the Gram-negative bacterial transposons, Tn21 and Tn501, are phenotypically indistinguishable and have extensive DNA identity. However, Tn21 mer has an additional coding region (merC) in the middle of the operon which is lacking in Tn501 and there is also a discrete region of the mercuric ion reductase gene (merA) which differs markedly between the two operons. DNA fragment probes were used to determine the distribution of specific mer coding regions in two distinct collections of mercury-resistant (Hgr) Gram-negative bacteria. Colony blot hybridization analysis showed that merC-positive operons occur almost exclusively in Escherichia, although merC-negative operons can also be found in this genus. The merC-negative operons were found in Citrobacter, Klebsiella, and Enterobacter and in some Pseudomonas. Most of the Pseudomonas did not hybridize detectably with either of the two operons studied, indicating that they harbor an unrelated or more distantly related class of mercury resistance locus. Southern hybridization patterns demonstrated that the merC-positive mer operon is well conserved at the DNA level, whereas the merC-negative operons are much less conserved. The presence of merC also correlated with conservation of a specific variant region of the merA gene and with an antibiotic resistance pattern similar to that of Tn21. Tn501 appears to be an atypical example of the merC-negative subgroup of Hgr loci.