Helicobacter pylori strains isolated from most patients with peptic ulcer disease and adenocarcinoma express the vacuolating toxin VacA and contain a pathogenicity island named cag. The cag pathogenicity island codes for more than 40 putative proteins with features similar to bacterial secretion systems. One of these proteins, CagA, is an immunodominant antigen with unknown function encoded by the cagA gene. In the present study, we have analysed the functional promoter elements of the H. pylori cagA gene as well as of the divergently transcribed cagB gene. Primer extension analyses identified a single 5' end of the cagA mRNA, while two initiation sites were mapped in the case of the cagB mRNA. The promoters deduced upstream of these start points of transcription contained conserved -10 regions but no -35 regions with respect to the Escherichia coli sigma70 consensus sequence. Nevertheless, they could be activated in E. coli and in vitro by purified E. coli RNA polymerase. Deletion analyses indicated that the cagA and cagB genes are transcribed by overlapping promoters and that full activation requires sequences up to -70 and -96 respectively. Instead, basal transcription is likely to be mediated by -10 extended promoter-like sequences. RNA polymerase is able to bind the -40 to -60 region of the cagA promoter, and its binding is mediated by the alpha-subunit. This region resembles the UP elements of prokaryotic promoters in location, sequence and mechanism of interaction with the RNA polymerase. We discuss the features of these promoters and propose that they could represent a class of minimum promoters, which ensures a basic level of transcription, while full activation requires regulatory elements or a defined promoter context.