A 7.1 kb EcoRI fragment from Azospirillum brasilense, that hybridized with a probe carrying the ntrBC genes from Bradyrhizobium japonicum, was cloned. The nucleotide sequence of a 3.8 kb subfragment was established. This led to the identification of two open reading frames, encoding polypeptides of 401 and 481 amino acids, that were similar to NtrB and NtrC, respectively. A broad host range plasmid containing the putative Azospirillum ntrC gene was shown to restore nitrogen fixation under free-living conditions to a ntrC-Tn5 mutant of Azorhizobium caulinodans. Several Tn5 insertion mutants were isolated in the ntrBC coding region in A brasilense. These mutants were prototrophic and Nif+. However, their nitrogenase activity was slightly lower than in the wild type and they were unable to grow on nitrate as sole nitrogen source. Under microaerobiosis and in the absence of ammonia, a nifA-lacZ fusion was expressed in the mutants at about 60% of the level in the wild type. In the presence of ammonia, the fusion was similarly expressed (60% of the maximum) both in the wild type and mutants. Addition of ammonia to a nitrogen-fixing culture of ntrBC mutants did not abolish nitrogenase activity, in contrast with the wild type. It thus appears that in Azospirillum the ntrBC genes are not essential for nitrogen fixation, although NtrC controls nifA expression to some extent. They are, however, required for the switch-off of nitrogenase activity.