We have analyzed DNA of wild-type T4 and of 13 independent large viable deletions isolated by Homyk and Weil (Virology 61 (1974) 505-523) and by Little (Virology 53 (1973) 47-59), by sequencing, cloning, and expression studies. The deletions can be explained by illegitimate recombination between short (4- to 15-bp) ectopic repeats. In four deletions, adjacent regions are partially homologous, and in at least one of them, the base adjacent to the overlap was deleted during recombination. The sequence 5'-GGGC, which has not been associated with T4 deletions in other map regions, occurs within three repeats, and near the repeats in four more of the 13 deletions. Five previously named genes, 69, soc, mrh, modA, and dda were mapped relative to the deletion endpoints. Nine additional ORFs were found interspersed between them. One of these shares some similarities with mrh (modulates rpoH; Frazier and Mosig, Gene 88 (1990) 7-14), and another one resembles modA (coding for an ADP-ribosyl-transferase that modifies RNA polymerase alpha subunits, Skórko et al., Eur. J. Biochem. 79 (1977) 55-66) respectively. We found that the host's heat shock sigma factor, sigma32, is phosphorylated, and that Mrh protein modulates this phosphorylation. The ORF dda.9 downstream of mrh has a patchy similarity with conserved C-terminal segments (motifs) of sigma32; therefore, we call it srh. Another ORF, dda.2 located between modA and dda, shares sequence similarity with sigma70, and we call it srd. We consider the possibility that Srh and Srd act as decoys for sigma32, or sigma70, respectively. Expression of several of the ORFs from cloned DNA appears to be toxic to the host bacteria. Mutant clones only could be constructed from gene 69 and from modA. Moreover, dda.2 (srd)-containing bacteria grow extremely slowly, and they form filaments in liquid cultures. Clones carrying mrh and srh show less severe filamentation. Our results highlight the importance of 'non-essential' genes for phage development and evolution.