Oxygen caused a reversible inhibition (switch-off) of nitrogenase activity in whole cells of four strains of diazotrophs, the facultative anaerobe Klebsiella pneumoniae and three strains of photosynthetic bacteria (Rhodopseudomonas sphaeroides f. sp. denitrificans and Rhodopseudomonas capsulata strains AD2 and BK5). In K. pneumoniae 50% inhibition of acetylene reduction was attained at an O2 concentration of 0.37 μM. Cyanide (90 μM), which did not affect acetylene reduction but inhibited whole-cell respiration by 60 to 70%, shifted the O2 concentration that caused 50% inhibition of nitrogenase activity to 2.9 μM. A mutant strain of K. pneumoniae, strain AH11, has a respiration rate that is 65 to 75% higher than that of the wild type, but its nitrogenase activity is similar to wild-type activity. Acetylene reduction by whole cells of this mutant was inhibited 50% by 0.20 μM O2. Inhibition by CN- of 40 to 50% of the O2 uptake in the mutant shifted the O2 concentration that caused 50% inhibition of nitrogenase to 1.58 μM. Thus, when the respiration rates were lower, higher oxygen concentrations were required to inhibit nitrogenase. Reversible inhibition of nitrogenase activity in vivo was caused under anaerobic conditions by other electron acceptors. Addition of 2 mM sulfite to cell suspensions of R. capsulata B10 and R. sphaeroides inhibited nitrogenase activity. Nitrite also inhibited acetylene reduction in whole cells of the photodenitrifier R. sphaeroides but not in R. capsulata B10, which is not capable of enzymatic reduction of NO2-. Lower concentrations of NO2- were required to inhibit the activity in NO3--grown cells, which have higher activities of nitrite reductase. We suggest that the reversible inhibition of nitrogenase activity (switch-off) by oxygen is a particular case of the general phenomenon of diversion of electrons from nitrogenase to other electron acceptors.