The rightward regulatory region of bacteriophage lambda contains two promoters, pRM and pR, which direct the synthesis of nonoverlapping divergent transcripts from start sites 82 bp apart. Each of the two promoters has an upstream (A+T)-rich region (ATR) within the sequence from -40 to -60 where in the rrnB P1 promoter a stretch of 20 (A+T) bp greatly stimulates promoter function. Here we present an investigation of the possible functional significance of pRM's ATR. We determined the effects on RNA polymerase-pRM promoter interaction both of (G+C) substitutions in the ATR and of amino acid substitutions in the alpha subunit, known to affect the upstream interaction. We find small (two- to threefold) effects of selected mutations in the alpha subunit on open complex formation at pRM. However, the (presumably upstream) interactions underlying these effects are sequence nonspecific, as they are not affected by (G+C) substitutions in the ATR. Substitution of the 20-bp UP element of the rrnB P1 promoter between positions -40 and -60 at pRM stimulates open complex formation to a considerably greater extent (5- to 10-fold). Results from kinetic studies indicate that on this construct the UP element mainly accelerates a step subsequent to the binding of RNA polymerase, although it may also facilitate the binding event itself. Less extensive studies likewise provide evidence for a two- to threefold activation of pR by upstream interactions. The possible involvement of the alpha subunit in the previously characterized (e.g., B. C. Mita, Y. Tang, and P. L. deHaseth, J. Biol. Chem. 270:30428-30433, 1995) interference of pR-bound RNA polymerase with open complex formation at pRM is discussed.