The rifampin resistance rifD18 allele of rpoB, carried on the expression plasmid pXT7 beta, is controlled by a strong bacteriophage T7 late promoter and two weak Escherichia coli promoters. Depending on the host strain, pXT7 beta specifies different levels of Rifr beta subunit, providing a system for the isolation, maintenance, and overexpression of dominant lethal alleles of rpoB. In rpoB+ hosts, pXT7 beta confers the Rifr phenotype on the Rifs host. Negative rpoB mutations in the plasmid DNA can thus be scored by screening transformants for Rifs. In an rpoB(Am) supD(Ts) host in which chromosomal rpoB expression is decreased as the temperature goes up, some of the negative plasmid-borne rpoB mutations displayed a dominant phenotype. In a host harboring inducible T7 RNA polymerase, the defective beta subunits could be overexpressed independently of the E. coli transcriptional machinery. With this system, we isolated several negative rpoB mutations induced in vitro by hydroxylamine. Seven of the mutant rpoB alleles, when overexpressed, were found to specify normal-size beta polypeptides. Two of them displayed the dominant lethal phenotype in the rpoB(Am) supD(Ts) background. We also constructed a mutation (rpoB1800) in which 24 carboxy-terminal amino acids were substituted with a random 19-amino-acid sequence. The nonfunctional rpoB1800 beta polypeptide was isolated and assembled in vitro into the core enzyme molecule.