The galE gene of Streptomyces lividans was used to probe a cosmid library harbouring Brucella melitensis 16M DNA and the nucleotide sequence of a 2.5 kb ClaI fragment which hybridised was determined. An open reading frame encoding a predicted polypeptide with significant homology to UDP-galactose-4-epimerases of Brucella arbortus strain 2308 and other bacterial species was identified. DNA sequences flanking the B. melitensis galE gene shared no identity with other gal genes and, as for B. abortus, were located adjacent to a mazG homologue. A plasmid which encoded the B. melitensis galE open reading frame complemented a galE mutation in Salmonella typhimurium LB5010, as shown by the restoration of smooth lipopolysaccharide (LPS) biosynthesis, sensitivity to phage P22 infection and restoration of UDP-galactose-4-epimerase activity. The galE gene on the B. melitensis 16M chromosome was disrupted by insertional inactivation and these mutants lacked UDP-galactose-4-epimerase activity but no discernible differences in LPS structure between parent and the mutants were observed. One B. melitensis 16M galE mutant, Bm92, was assessed for virulence in CD-1 and BALB/c mice and displayed similar kinetics of invasion and persistence in tissues compared with the parent bacterial strain. CD-1 mice immunised with B. melitensis 16M galE were protected against B. melitensis 16M challenge.