Nodulation genes in Rhizobium are required for invasion of the host plant. The nodABC operon is induced by plant activator molecules; this activation requires the gene product of the constitutively expressed nodD locus, which is transcribed divergently from nodABC. We are employing in vitro transcription to elucidate the molecular mechanism of nod gene activation. We used a micropurification technique to obtain RNA polymerase from Rhizobium meliloti, and here demonstrate that it initiated and terminated accurately at the Escherichia coli trp promoter-leader region. E. coli RNA polymerase, however, apparently fails to recognize R. meliloti promoters. We used the R. meliloti RNA polymerase in a minimal transcription system to attempt to localize the divergent start sites for nodD and nodABC. Transcript sizing and fingerprinting, together with synchronized single-round transcription experiments permit us to designate an in vitro transcription initiation site for nodD. Primer extension analysis of in vivo mRNA demonstrates that the initiation site which is utilized in vitro is the same site used in vivo. While nodABC is not transcribed in our minimal in vitro transcription system, this system should prove useful for the study of factors in induced cells which promote expression of this inducible promoter.