Transposon mutagenesis and antibiotic enrichment were employed to isolate a mutant of Rhodobacter sphaeroides Si4 designated strain M22, that had lost the ability to grow on D-mannitol and to produce the enzyme mannitol dehydrogenase (MDH). DNA flanking the transposon in the mutant strain was used as a probe for the identification and cloning of the MDH gene (mtlK). A 5.5 kb EcoRI/BglII fragment from R. sphaeroides Si4 was isolated and shown to complement the mutation in R. sphaeroides M22. Successful complementation required that a promoter of the vector-plasmid pRK415 be present, suggesting that the mtlK gene is part of a larger operon. Using oligonucleotides derived from the N-terminal sequence of MDH as probes mtlK was located on the complementing fragment and the gene was sequenced. The mtlK open reading frame encodes a protein of 51,404 Da with an N-terminal sequence identical to that obtained from amino acid analysis of the purified MDH. The MDH of R. sphaeroides Si4 exhibits distant similarity to the mannitol-1-phosphate dehydrogenases from Escherichia coli and Enterococcus faecalis, with 28.1% and 26.3% identity, respectively. Mutant strains deficient in MtlK displayed substantial levels of sorbitol dehydrogenase activity, originally thought to be only a minor activity associated with the MDH enzyme. It is likely that we have uncovered an additional polyol dehydrogenase with activity for sorbitol. The mtlK gene can be used for overexpression of MDH in E. coli in order to obtain sufficient amounts of enzyme for further investigations and applications.