Sporulation of Bacillus subtilis is a primitive example of coupling between morphological changes and timing of gene expression during development. A major early control of transcriptional activity is dependent on a new sigma factor, sigma E, which is encoded by the sigE gene and synthesized as an inactive precursor, pro-sigma E. We show that mutations in the spoIIGA gene block the processing of pro-sigma E. Moreover, synthesis of both spoIIGA and sigE products in vegetative cells leads to expression of a sigma E-controlled promoter during growth, suggesting that SpoIIGA has pro-sigma E processing activity. The SpoIIGA polypeptide, which contains five potential transmembrane domains, is synthesized during sporulation 1 hr before processing activity can be detected. We propose that SpoIIGA processing activity is triggered by the presence of the sporulation septum, which is itself dependent on the spoIIAA and spoIIE products. These proteins are normally needed for pro-sigma E processing during sporulation but can be bypassed in vegetative cells. According to this model, a morphological structure would directly control the synthesis of a developmental sigma factor and would modify gene expression.