Anaerobic respiratory gene expression in Escherichia coli is differentially controlled by nitrate and nitrite through dual interacting two-component regulatory systems. The NarX sensor is one of two membrane-spanning sensor kinases that control the phosphorylation state of two DNA-binding response regulators. We have studied NarX autophosphorylation in crude membrane preparations from cells that overexpress NarX protein. The low basal autophosphorylation rate was stimulated about sixfold and threefold by nitrate and nitrite respectively. This demonstrates that nitrate and nitrite differentially activate NarX autokinase activity. We also isolated single-residue substitutions in NarX that affect its ability to respond to or discriminate between nitrate and nitrite. Most of these substitutions affect residues within the conserved P-box sequence in the periplasmic domain. We characterized several of the mutants in vivo, by monitoring ligand-regulated gene expression, and in vitro, by monitoring ligand-responsive autophosphorylation. At least one change, K491 (Lys at position 49 changed to Ile), resulted in a protein with greatly impaired ability to discriminate between nitrate and nitrite. Other changes (H45E and R59K) resulted in proteins that responded normally to nitrate but were unable to respond to nitrite. These results implicate the P-box region in discrimination between subtly different small molecules.