Mutations in the structural gene (hns) for the Escherichia coli nucleoid-associated DNA-binding protein H-NS cause highly pleiotropic effects on gene expression, site-specific recombination, transposition of phage Mu, the stability of the genetic material and the topological state of the DNA. We have investigated the regulation of hns expression and found that hns transcription is subjected to stationary phase induction and negative autoregulation. A set of hns-lacZ protein and operon fusions was constructed in vitro and integrated in single copy into the attB site of the bacterial genome. Quantification of beta-galactosidase activity along the bacterial growth curve showed that hns expression increases approximately 10-fold in stationary phase compared with exponentially growing cells. Immunological detection of the H-NS protein in growing and stationary phase cells supported the genetic data and showed that H-NS synthesis varies with growth phase. In addition, primer extension experiments demonstrated that the amount of hns mRNA is elevated in stationary phase cultures and that hns transcription is directed by a unique promoter functioning in both log and stationary phase. Disruption of the hns gene by an insertion mutation led to the derepression (approximately fourfold) of the expression of an hns-lacZ operon fusion integrated at the attB site, showing that hns transcription is subjected to negative regulation by its own gene product. Autoregulation of hns expression is particularly pronounced in log phase. Both stationary phase control and autoregulation of hns transcription are associated with a 130 bp fragment that contains the hns promoter. In order to study the interaction of H-NS with its own regulatory region, we developed an efficient overproduction procedure and a simple purification scheme for H-NS. DNA gel retardation assays showed that the H-NS protein can preferentially interact with a restriction fragment carrying the hns promoter. This restriction fragment showed features of curved DNA as judged by two-dimensional polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis performed at 4 degrees C and 60 degrees C.