The nar operon, which encodes the three subunits of nitrate reductase in Escherichia coli, is fully induced under anaerobic conditions with nitrate. Two distinct regulatory domains have been delineated in the 5' region of the operon which respond respectively to positive induction by the fnr gene product under anaerobic conditions and to positive induction by the narL gene product in the presence of nitrate (S.F. Li, T. Rabi, and J.A. DeMoss, J. Bacteriol. 164:25-32). To characterize these two regulatory regions, we determined the DNA sequence for a 500-base-pair (bp) region extending upstream from the first structural gene of the nar operon. Analysis of subsequent subclones of the operon established that the 5' limit of the nar operon lies between 215 and 260 bp upstream from the translational start site of the first structural gene. The region required for induction by the fnr gene product is located within 160 bp from the translation start site, while the region responding to induction by nitrate extends an additional 100 bp upstream. Protein fusions of lacZ with the N-terminal sequence of the narG gene were constructed so that beta-galactosidase formation was under the control of the nar promoter and one or both regulatory domains. Analysis of strains bearing these fusion plasmids indicated that the expression of the hybrid proteins paralleled that of nitrate reductase by the parent plasmids, demonstrating that the regulatory signals did not extend significantly into the first structural gene. The transcriptional start site and the level of the transcription were determined by the S1 mapping procedure. One major transcript was identified which initiated -50 bp from the translational start site of the first structural gene. The synthesis of the transcript was repressed aerobically, was fully induced by nitrate anaerobically, and was greatly reduced in an Fnr- mutant. Possible regulatory sequences were identified in the 200-bp regulatory region extending upstream from the transcription start site.