Selected biochemical features of sulfonate assimilation in Escherichia coli K-12 were studied in detail. Competition between sulfonate-sulfur and sulfur sources with different oxidation states, such as cysteine, sulfite and sulfate, was examined. The ability of the enzyme sulfite reductase to attack the C-S linkage of sulfonates was directly examined. Intact cells formed sulfite from sulfonate-sulfur. In cysteine-grown cells, when cysteine was present with either cysteate or sulfate, assimilation of both of the more oxidized sulfur sources was substantially inhibited. In contrast, none of three sulfonates had a competitive effect on sulfate assimilation. In studies of competition between different sulfonates, the presence of taurine resulted in a decrease in cysteate uptake by one-half, while in the presence of isethionate, cysteate uptake was almost completely inhibited. In sulfite-grown cells, sulfonates had no competitive effect on sulfite utilization. An E. coli mutant lacking sulfite reductase and unable to utilize isethionate as the sole source of sulfur formed significant amounts of sulfite from isethionate. In cell extracts, sulfite reductase itself did not utilize sulfonate-sulfur as an electron acceptor. These findings indicate that sulfonate utilization may share some intermediates (e.g. sulfite) and regulatory features (repression by cysteine) of the assimilatory sulfate reductive pathway, but sulfonates do not exert regulatory effects on sulfate utilization. Other results suggest that unrecognized aspects of sulfonate metabolism, such as specific transport mechanisms for sulfonates and different regulatory features, may exist.