The rpoH genes encoding homologs of Escherichia coli sigma 32 (heat shock sigma factor) were isolated and sequenced from five gram negative proteobacteria (gamma or alpha subgroup): Enterobacter cloacae (gamma), Serratia marcescens (gamma), Proteus mirabilis (gamma), Agrobacterium tumefaciens (alpha) and Zymomonas mobilis (alpha). Comparison of these and three known genes from E.coli (gamma), Citrobacter freundii (gamma) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (gamma) revealed marked similarities that should reflect conserved function and regulation of sigma 32 in the heat shock response. Both the sequence complementary to part of 16S rRNA (the 'downstream box') and a predicted mRNA secondary structure similar to those involved in translational control of sigma 32 in E.coli were found for the rpoH genes from the gamma, but not the alpha, subgroup, despite considerable divergence in nucleotide sequence. Moreover, a stretch of nine amino acid residues Q(R/K)(K/R)LFFNLR, designated the 'RpoH box', was absolutely conserved among all sigma 32 homologs, but absent in other sigma factors; this sequence overlapped with the segment of polypeptide thought to be involved in DnaK/DnaJ chaperone-mediated negative control of synthesis and stability of sigma 32. In addition, a putative sigma E (sigma 24)-specific promoter was found in front of all rpoH genes from the gamma, but not alpha, subgroup. These results suggest that the regulatory mechanisms, as well as the function, of the heat shock response known in E.coli are very well conserved among the gamma subgroup and partially conserved among the alpha proteobacteria.