Promoter PL of coliphage lambda is highly active in vivo although it is recognized 15-30 times less efficiently by RNA polymerase when compared with promoters of similar strength. Moreover, it differs significantly from the consensus sequence for Escherichia coli promoters. Sequence variants of PL which are more homologous to consensus promoters bind RNA polymerase with increased efficiency. They are nevertheless significantly reduced in their in vivo strength. High activity can be restored by a downstream sequence of a typical consensus-like promoter. Evidently, such elements are required for the efficient release of a stably bound RNA polymerase into a transcriptional elongation complex. We propose that the functional programme encoded in a promoter sequence can be optimized in alternative ways.