We initiated these studies to help clarify the roles of heme, delta-aminolevulinic acid (ALA), hemA, and hemM in Escherichia coli heme synthesis. Using recombinant human hemoglobin (rHb1.1) as a tool for increasing E. coli's heme requirements, we demonstrated that heme is a feedback inhibitor of heme synthesis. Cooverexpression of rHb1.1 and the hemA-encoded glutamyl-tRNA (GTR) reductase increased intracellular levels of ALA and heme and increased the rate of rHb1.1 formation. These results support the conclusion that heme synthesis is limited by ALA (S. Hino and A. Ishida, Enzyme 16:42-49, 1973; W. K. Philipp-Dormston and M. Doss, Enzyme 16:57-64, 1973) and that the hemA-encoded GTR reductase is a rate-limiting enzyme in the pathway (J.-M. Li, C. S. Russell, and S. D. Cosloy, Gene 82:2099-217, 1989). Increasing the copy number of hemM, whose product is believed to be required for efficient ALA formation (W. Chen, C. S. Russell, Y. Murooka, and S. D. Cosloy, J. Bacteriol. 176:2743-2746, 1994; M. Ikemi, K. Murakami, M. Hashimoto, and Y. Murooka, Gene 121:127-132, 1992), had no effect on either ALA pools or the rate of rHb1.1 accumulation. The hemA-encoded GTR reductase was found to be regulated by ALA. Some of our results differ from those reported by Hart and coworkers (R. A. Hart, P. T. Kallio, and J. E. Bailey, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 60:2431-2437, 1994), who concluded that ALA formation is not the rate-limiting step in E. coli cells expressing Vitreoscilla hemoglobin.