Sequence determinants responsible for promoter recognition by RNA polymerase holoenzyme containing sigma 38, the rpoS gene product, were analyzed. In a previous study [Tanaka et al. (1993) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 90, 3511-3515], Escherichia coli promoters were classified into three groups: promoters recognized only by RNA polymerase holoenzyme containing sigma 70 (E sigma 70); promoters recognized preferentially by that containing sigma 38 (E sigma 38); promoters recognized by both E sigma 70 and E sigma 38. As representatives of each group of promoter, we chose the alaS, fic and lacUV5 promoters. Making use of a restriction enzyme site inserted between the -10 and -35 hexamer sequences, promoters were divided into the upstream (UE) and downstream (DE) elements. These UEs and DEs were combined in all possible combinations and used for in vitro transcription reactions. Promoters containing DE from the fic or lacUV5 promoter were found to be recognized by E sigma 38, while those containing DE from the alaS promoter were not. Moreover, fic DE alone functioned as an efficient promoter for E sigma 38. Thus we conclude that the discrimination signal resides within the DE sequence. To test the activator response of E sigma 38, in vitro transcription reactions were also performed with the gal and lac promoters. For both CRP-responsive P1 promoters, E sigma 38 was found to be activated by the CRP-cAMP complex.