Bacterial cells often face hostile environmental conditions, to which they adapt by activation of stress responses. In Escherichia coli, environmental stresses resulting in significant reduction in growth rate stimulate the expression of the rpoS gene, encoding the alternative σ factor σS. The σS protein associates with RNA polymerase, and through transcription of genes belonging to the rpoS regulon allows the activation of a ‘general stress response’, which protects the bacterial cell from harmful environmental conditions. Each step of this process is finely tuned in order to cater to the needs of the bacterial cell: in particular, selective promoter recognition by σS is achieved through small deviations from a common consensus DNA sequence for both σS and the housekeeping σ70. Recognition of specific DNA elements by σS is integrated with the effects of environmental signals and the interaction with regulatory proteins, in what represents a fascinating example of multifactorial regulation of gene expression. In this report, we discuss the function of the rpoS gene in the general stress response, and review the current knowledge on regulation of rpoS expression and on promoter recognition by σS.