A carotenoid biosynthesis gene cluster for the production of astaxanthin was isolated from the marine bacterium Agrobacterium aurantiacum. This cluster contained five carotenogenic genes with the same orientation, which were designated crtW, crtZ, crtY, crtI, and crtB. The stop codons of individual crt genes except for crtB overlapped the start codons of the following crt genes. Escherichia coli transformants carrying the Erwinia uredovora carotenoid biosynthesis genes provide suitable substrates for carotenoid biosynthesis. The functions of the five crt genes of A. aurantiacum were determined through chromatographic and spectroscopic analyses of the pigments accumulated in some E. coli transformants carrying various combinations of the E. uredovora and A. aurantiacum carotenogenic genes. As a result, the astaxanthin biosynthetic pathway is proposed for the first time at the level of the biosynthesis genes. The crtW and crtZ gene products, which mediated the oxygenation reactions from beta-carotene to astaxanthin, were found to have low substrate specificity. This allowed the production of many presumed intermediates of astaxanthin, i.e., adonixanthin, phoenicoxanthin (adonirubin), canthaxanthin, 3'-hydroxyechinenone, and 3-hydroxyechinenone.