Bradyrhizobium japonicum possesses a subclass of heat-shock genes whose members are transcribed from a sigma 32 consensus promoter. Having identified previously one gene (rpoH1) encoding a sigma 32-like RNA polymerase transcription factor, we report here the characterization of two additional rpoH-like genes (rpoH2 and rpoH3). B. japonicum thus represents the first example of an organism possessing an rpoH multigene family. All three rpoH genes encode functional proteins that are able to initiate transcription from the Escherichia coli groE promoter. Each rpoH gene is apparently regulated by a different mechanism. Although both rpoH1 and rpoH2 are transcribed from sigma 70-type promoters, transcription of the rpoH1 operon was found to be heat inducible by an unknown mechanism, whereas the level of rpoH2 mRNA decreased after heat shock. At extreme temperatures (48 degrees C), rpoH2 was transcribed from a second promoter that resembled the E. coli sigma E-type promoter. The rpoH3 gene was found to be associated with two upstream genes, ragA and ragB, coding for a classical two-component regulatory system. Transcription initiated from a promoter that mapped in front of the putative response regulator gene ragA, suggesting that ragA, ragB and rpoH3 are organized in an operon. The ragA promoter was similar to a sigma 32 consensus promoter. The three B. japonicum rpoH genes also varied in their significance to support growth of the organism. While the rpoH2 gene could not be eliminated by mutation, knock-out mutants of rpoH1 and/ or rpoH3 were readily obtained and shown to be indistinguishable from the wild type under aerobic growth conditions or during root-nodule symbiosis. We conclude that rpoH2 is essential for the synthesis of cellular proteins under physiological growth conditions, whereas rpoH1, and probably also rpoH3, are involved in their synthesis during the stress response.