The prototrophic bacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides DSM 158 has a periplasmic nitrate reductase which is induced by nitrate and it is not repressed by ammonium or oxygen. In a Tn5 mutant lacking nitrate reductase activity, transposon insertion is localized in a 1.2 kb EcoRI fragment. A 0.6 kb BamHI-EcoRI segment of this region was used as a probe to isolate, from the wild-type strain, a 6.8 kb Pstl fragment carrying the putative genes coding for the periplasmic nitrate reductase. In vivo protein expression and DNA sequence analysis reveal the presence in this region of three genes, napABC, probably organized in an operon. These genes are required for nitrate reduction, as deduced by mutational and complementation studies. The napA gene codes for a protein with a high homology to the periplasmic nitrate reductase from Alcali-genes eutrophus and, to a lesser extent, to other prokaryotic nitrate reductases and molybdenum-containing enzymes. The napB gene product has two haem c-binding sites and shows a high homology with the cytochrome c-type subunit of the periplasmic nitrate reductase from A. eutrophus. NAPA and NAPB proteins appear to be translated with signal peptides of 29 and 24 residues, respectively, indicating that mature proteins are located in the periplasm. The napC gene codes for a 25 kDa protein with a transmembrane sequence of 17 hydrophobic residues. NAPC has four haem c-binding sites and is homologous to the membrane-bound c-type cytochromes encoded by Pseudomonas stutzeri nirT and Escherichia coli torC genes. The phenotypes of defined insertion mutants constructed for each gene also indicate that periplasmic nitrate reductase from R. sphaeroides DSM 158 is a dimeric complex of a 90kDa catalytic subunit (NAPA) and a 15kDa cytochrome c (NAPB), which receives electrons from a membrane-anchored tetrahaem protein (NAPC), thus allowing electron flow between membrane and periplasm. This nitrate-reducing system differs from the assimilatory and respiratory bacterial nitrate reductases at the level of cellular localization, regulatory properties, biochemical characteristics and gene organization.