The development of genetic competence in Bacillus subtilis is regulated by a complex signal transduction cascade, which leads to the synthesis of the competence transcription factor (CTF). Previous studies suggested that CTF is encoded by comK. ComK is required for the transcription of comK itself, as well as of the late competence genes encoding the DNA uptake machinery and of genes required for homologous recombination. Here, we used purified ComK to study its role in transcription and to determine the DNA recognition sequence for ComK. In vitro transcription from the comG promoter, which depends on ComK in vivo, was observed on the addition of purified ComK together with Bacillus subtilis RNA polymerase, proving that ComK is CTF. To determine the DNA sequences involved in ComK recognition, footprinting analysis was performed with promoter fragments of the CTF-dependent genes: comC, comE, comF, comG, comK, and addAB. The ComK binding sites determined by DNase I protection experiments were unusually long, with average lengths of similar to 65 bp, and displayed only weak sequence similarities. Hydroxy-radical footprinting, performed with the addAB promoter, revealed a unique arrangement of four short A/T-rich sequences. Gel retardation experiments indicated that four molecules of ComK bound the addAB promoter and the dyad symmetrical arrangement of the four A/T-rich sequences implied that ComK functions as a tetramer composed of two dimers each recognizing the motif AAAAN(5)TTTT. Comparable A/T-rich sequences were identified in all six DNase I footprints and could be used to predict ComK targets in the B. subtilis genome. On the basis of the variability in distance between the ComK-dimer binding sites, ComK-regulated promoters could be divided into three classes, demonstrating a remarkable flexibility in the binding of ComK. The pattern of hydroxy-radical protections suggested that ComK binds at one face of the DNA helix through the minor groove. This inference was strengthened by the observation that minor groove binding drugs inhibited the binding of ComK.