The production of pectolytic enzymes (pectate lyase [Pel] and polygalacturonase [Peh]), cellulase (Cel), and protease (Prt) is activated in the soft rot bacterium Erwinia carotovora subsp. carotovora by aepA (activator of extracellular protein production) and celery extract (Y. Liu, H. Murata, A. Chatterjee, and A. K. Chatterjee, Mol. Plant-Microbe Interact. 6:299-308, 1993). We recently isolated a new class of mutants of strain E. carotovora subsp. carotovora 71 which overproduces Pel, Peh, Cel, and Prt. From the overproducing strain AC5034, we identified an activator locus, designated aepH*, which stimulated Pel, Peh, Cel, and Prt production in E. carotovora subsp. carotovora 71 or its derivatives. The nucleotide sequence of the aepH* DNA segment revealed an open reading frame of 141 bp that could encode a small (5.45-kDa) highly basic (pI 11.7) protein of 47 amino acid residues. Analyses of deletions and MudI insertions indicated that the activator function required the 508-bp DNA segment which contains this open reading frame. The wild-type locus, aepH+, is localized within a DNA segment upstream of aepA. An AepH- strain constructed by exchanging aepH+ with aepH*::MudI was deficient in Pel, Peh, Cel, and Prt production; exoenzyme production was restored upon the introduction of a plasmid carrying aepH+ or aepH*. Plasmids carrying either aepH+ or aepH* activated the production of Pel-1, Peh-1, and Cel in Escherichia coli HB101 carrying the cognate genes. The aepH effect in E. coli was due to the activation of transcription, as indicated by assays of pel-1 and peh-1 mRNAs. The aepH+ and aepH* plasmids also stimulated Pel, Peh, Cel, and Prt production in other wild-type E. carotovora subsp. carotovora strains as well as in E. carotovora subsp. atroseptica. Although the stimulatory effect was generally more pronounced with aepH* than with aepH+, the extent of activation in the wild-type strains depended upon the bacterial strain and the growth medium. Southern blot hybridization revealed the presence of aepH homologs in E. carotovora subsp. carotovora and E. carotovora subsp. atroseptica, and provided physical evidence for linkage between aepA and aepH homologs in genomes of these bacteria. We conclude that aepH-mediated activation of exoprotein gene expression is a feature common to most strains of E. carotovora.