Virulence of the plant pathogen Erwinia carotovora subsp. carotovora is dependent on the production and secretion of a complex arsenal of plant cell wall-degrading enzymes. Production of these exoenzymes is controlled by a global regulatory mechanism. A virulent mutants in one of the regulatory loci, expI, show a pleiotropic defect in the growth phase-dependent transcriptional activation of exoenzyme gene expression. The expI gene encodes a 26 kDa polypeptide that is structurally and functionally related to the luxI gene product of Vibrio fischeri. Functional similarity of expI and luxI has been demonstrated by reciprocal genetic complementation experiments. LuxI controls bioluminescence in V.fischeri in a growth phase-dependent manner by directing the synthesis of the diffusible autoinducer, N-(3-oxohexanoyl) homoserine lactone. E.c. subsp. carotovora expI+ strains or Escherichia coli harboring the cloned expI gene excrete a small diffusible signal molecule that complements the expI mutation of Erwinia as well as a luxI mutation of V.fischeri. This extracellular complementation can also be achieved by E.coli harboring the luxI gene from V.fischeri or by adding the synthetic V.fischeri autoinducer. Both the production of the plant tissue-macerating exoenzymes and the ability of the bacteria to propagate in planta are restored in expI mutants by autoinducer addition. These data suggest that the same signal molecule is employed in control of such diverse processes as virulence in a plant pathogen and bioluminescence in a marine bacterium, and may represent a general mechanism by which bacteria modulate gene expression in response to changing environmental conditions.