Escherichia coli RNA polymerase is able to site-specifically melt 12 bp of promoter DNA at temperatures far below those normally associated with DNA melting. Here we consider several models to explain how RNA polymerase destabilizes duplex DNA. One popular model proposes that upon binding to the promoter, RNA polymerase untwists the spacer DNA between the -10 and -35 regions, which results in a destabilization of the -10 region at a TA base step where melting initiates. Promoter untwisting may result, in part, from extensive wrapping of the DNA around RNA polymerase. Formation of the strand-separated open complex appears to be facilitated by specific protein-DNA interactions which occur predominantly on the non-template strand. Recent evidence suggests that these include important contacts with sigma factor region 2.3, which we propose binds the displaced single strand of DNA.