The conversion of xylose to ethanol by recombinant Escherichia coli has been investigated in pH-controlled batch fermentations. Chemical and environmental parameters were varied to determine tolerance and to define optimal conditions. Relatively high concentrations of ethanol (56 g/L) were produced from xylose with excellent efficiencies. Volumetric productivities of up to 1.4 g ethanol/L h were obtained. Productivities, yields, and final ethanol concentrations achieved from xylose with recombinant E. coli exceeded the reported values with other organisms. In addition to xylose, all other sugar constituents of biomass (glucose, mannose, arabinose, and galactose) were efficiently converted to ethanol by recombinant E. coli. Unusually low inocula equivalent to 0.033 mg of dry cell weight/L were adequate for batch fermentations. The addition of small amounts of calcium, magnesium, and ferrous ions stimulated fermentation. The inhibitory effects of toxic compounds (salts, furfural, and acetate) which are present in hemicellulose hydrolysates were also examined.