Intact cells of Bacillus stearothermophilus PV72 revealed, after conventional thin-sectioning procedures, the typical cell wall profile of S-layer-carrying gram-positive eubacteria consisting of a ca. 10-nm-thick peptidoglycan-containing layer and a ca. 10-nm-thick S layer. Cell wall preparations obtained by breaking the cells and removing the cytoplasmic membrane by treatment with Triton X-100 revealed a triple-layer structure, with an additional S layer on the inner surface of the peptidoglycan. This profile is characteristic for cell wall preparations of many S-layer-carrying gram-positive eubacteria. Among several variants of strain PV72 obtained upon single colony isolation, we investigated the variant PV72 86-I, which does not exhibit an inner S layer on isolated cell walls but instead possesses a profile identical to that observed for intact cells. In the course of a controlled mild autolysis of isolated cell walls, S-layer subunits were released from the peptidoglycan of the variant and assembled into an additional S layer on the inner surface of the walls, leading to a three-layer cell wall profile as observed for cell wall preparations of the parent strain. In comparison to conventionally processed bacteria, freeze-substituted cells of strain PV72 and the variant strain revealed in thin sections a ca. 18-nm-wide electron-dense peptidoglycan-containing layer closely associated with the S layer. The demonstration of a pool of S-layer subunits in such a thin peptidoglycan layer in an amount at least sufficient for generating one coherent lattice on the cell surface indicated that the subunits must have occupied much of the free space in the wall fabric of both the parent strain and the variant. It can even be speculated that the rate of synthesis and translation of the S-layer protein is influenced by the packing density of the S-layer subunits in the periplasm of the cell wall delineated by the outer S layer and the cytoplasmic membrane. Our data indicate that the matrix of the rigid wall layer inhibits the assembly of the S-layer subunits which are in transit to the outside.