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In recent years, it has become clear that promoter recognition by bacterial RNA polymerase involves interactions not only between core promoter elements and the σ subunit, but also between a DNA element upstream of the core promoter and the α subunit. DNA binding by α can increase transcription dramatically. Here we review the current state of our understanding of the α interaction with DNA during basal transcription initiation (i.e. in the absence of proteins other than RNA polymerase) and activated transcription initiation (i.e. when stimulated by transcription factors).