Examination of the nucleotide sequence of the gene for ribosomal protein S20 (rpsT) of Escherichia coli suggested the presence of two promoters ("sites 1 and 2") separated by 90 base pairs (Mackie, G. A. (1981) J. Biol. Chem. 256, 8177-8182). We have investigated the properties of purified or cloned DNA fragments containing one or other or both these sites for their ability to promote transcription in vivo and in vitro. In reactions in vitro containing DNA and purified RNA polymerase as the sole macromolecular components, both sites 1 and 2 act as promoters directing the synthesis of "runoff" transcripts. The 5' termini of such transcripts have been determined by direct sequencing or by identification of the 5' terminal nucleoside 5'-triphosphate, 3'-monophosphate. In site 1, the major transcript initiates with GTP at residue 141 in the DNA sequence. A minor start occurs at residue 142 and uses CTP as the initiating nucleotide. In site 2, the major transcript (approximately 55% of all initiations in site 2) initiates with CTP at residue 232 while minor transcripts, each comprising approximately 20% of the total, initiate at residues 231 and 233 with GTP and CTP, respectively. In four methods of assay which reflect to varying extents the usage of promoters in vivo, site 1 is responsible for 10-30% of the total transcription of the gene for S20 and site 2 the remainder. Sites 1 and 2 appear to act independently and additively in assays based on the rate of synthesis of S20 in a system for coupled transcription and translation. Together, the two promoters for S20 are from 10-25-fold more active than the fully induced lac operon promoter.