The properties of poly(U)-directed cell-free systems developed from the sulphur-dependent, thermophilic archaebacteria Desulfurococcus mobilis, Thermoproteus tenax, Sulfolobus solfataricus, Thermococcus celer and Thermoplasma acidophilum have been compared. All systems are truly thermophilic in requiring incubation at temperatures close to the physiological optimum for cell growth. Under optimized conditions the error frequency in tRNA selection is less than 0.4% at 80 degrees C, and synthetic efficiencies (Phe residues polymerized per ribosome in 40 min) span from 4 for Tp. tenax, to 10 for Tc. celer, to 20-25 for D. mobilis and T. acidophilum and to 40 for S. solfataricus. According to requirements for polypeptide synthesis and to degree of stability of the ribosomal subunits' association, sulphur-dependent thermophiles cluster into two groups. Group I organisms (D. mobilis, Tp. tenax, S. solfataricus) harbour 70-S monomers composed of weakly associated subunits, whose poly(Phe)-synthesizing capacity is totally dependent on added spermine while being drastically inhibited by monovalent cations. Group II organisms (Tc. celer and T. acidophilum) contain 70-S particles composed of tightly bonded subunits, whose synthetic capacity is independent of spermine while being totally dependent on monovalent cations. Spermine promotes poly(Phe) synthesis on ribosomes of group I organisms by converting the peptidyltransferase center into an active conformation, while monovalent cations are inhibitory by preventing the interaction between the free ribosomal subunits. The closeness between Tc. celer and T. acidophilum ribosomes provides new insight on the phylogenetic placement of Thermococcaceae.