DNA of prokaryotes is in a nonequilibrium structural state, characterized as 'active' DNA supercoiling. Alterations in this state affect many life processes and a homeostatic control of DNA supercoiling has been suggested [Menzel, R. & Gellert, M. (1983) Cell 34, 105-113]. We here report on a new method for quantifying homeostatic control of the high-energy state of in vivo DNA. The method involves making small perturbation in the expression of topoisomerase I, and measuring the effect on DNA supercoiling of a reporter plasmid and on the expression of DNA gyrase. In a separate set of experiments the expression of DNA gyrase was manipulated and the control on DNA supercoiling and topoisomerase I expression was measured [part of these latter experiments has been published in Jensen, P.R., van der Weijden, C.C., Jensen, L.B., Westerhoff, H.V. & Snoep, J.L. (1999) Eur. J. Biochem. 266, 865-877]. Of the two regulatory mechanisms via which homeostasis is conferred, regulation of enzyme activity or regulation of enzyme expression, we quantified the first to be responsible for 72% and the latter for 28%. The gene expression regulation could be dissected to DNA gyrase (21%) and to topoisomerase I (7%). On a scale from 0 (no homeostatic control) to 1 (full homeostatic control) we quantified the homeostatic control of DNA supercoiling at 0.87. A 10% manipulation of either topoisomerase I or DNA gyrase activity results in a 1.3% change of DNA supercoiling only. We conclude that the homeostatic regulation of the nonequilibrium DNA structure in wild-type Escherichia coli is almost complete and subtle (i.e. involving at least three regulatory mechanisms).