It has often been suggested that differential usage of codons recognized by rare tRNA species, i.e. "rare codons", represents an evolutionary strategy to modulate gene expression. In particular, regulatory genes are reported to have an extraordinarily high frequency of rare codons. From E. coli we have compiled codon usage data for highly expressed genes, moderately/lowly expressed genes, and regulatory genes. We have identified a clear and general trend in codon usage bias, from the very high bias seen in very highly expressed genes and attributed to selection, to a rather low bias in other genes which seems to be more influenced by mutation than by selection. There is no clear tendency for an increased frequency of rare codons in the regulatory genes, compared to a large group of other moderately/lowly expressed genes with low codon bias. From this, as well as a consideration of evolutionary rates of regulatory genes, and of experimental data on translation rates, we conclude that the pattern of synonymous codon usage in regulatory genes reflects primarily the relaxation of natural selection.