Guanosine tetraphosphate (ppGpp) is a key mediator of stringent control, an adaptive response of bacteria to amino acid starvation, and has thus been termed a bacterial alarmone. Previous X-ray crystallographic analysis has provided a structural basis for the transcriptional regulation of RNA polymerase activity by ppGpp in the thermophilic bacterium Thermus thermophilus. Here we investigated the physiological basis of the stringent response by comparing the changes in intracellular ppGpp levels and the rate of RNA synthesis in stringent (rel+; wild type) and relaxed (relA and relC; mutant) strains of T. thermophilus. We found that in wild-type T. thermophilus, as in other bacteria, serine hydroxamate, an amino acid analogue that inhibits tRNASer aminoacylation, elicited a stringent response characterized in part by intracellular accumulation of ppGpp and that this response was completely blocked in a relA-null mutant and partially blocked in a relC mutant harboring a mutation in the ribosomal protein L11. Subsequent in vitro assays using ribosomes isolated from wild-type and relA and relC mutant strains confirmed that (p)ppGpp is synthesized by ribosomes and that mutation of RelA or L11 blocks that activity. This conclusion was further confirmed in vitro by demonstrating that thiostrepton or tetracycline inhibits (p)ppGpp synthesis. In an in vitro system, (p)ppGpp acted by inhibiting RNA polymerase-catalyzed 23S/5S rRNA gene transcription but at a concentration much higher than that of the observed intracellular ppGpp pool size. On the other hand, changes in the rRNA gene promoter activity tightly correlated with changes in the GTP but not ATP concentration. Also, (p)ppGpp exerted a potent inhibitory effect on IMP dehydrogenase activity. The present data thus complement the earlier structural analysis by providing physiological evidence that T. thermophilus does produce ppGpp in response to amino acid starvation in a ribosome-dependent (i.e., RelA-dependent) manner. However, it appears that in T. thermophilus, rRNA promoter activity is controlled directly by the GTP pool size, which is modulated by ppGpp via inhibition of IMP dehydrogenase activity. Thus, unlike the case of Escherichia coli, ppGpp may not inhibit T. thermophilus RNA polymerase activity directly in vivo, as recently proposed for Bacillus subtilis rRNA transcription (L. Krasny and R. L. Gourse, EMBO J. 23:4473-4483, 2004).