© 2017 Society for Applied Microbiology and John Wiley & Sons Ltd Metagenomics provide unprecedented insights into the genetic diversity of uncultivated bacteria inhabiting natural environments. Recent surveys have uncovered a major radiation of candidate phyla encompassing the Patescibacteria superphylum. Patescibacteria have small genomes and a presumed symbiotic or parasitic lifestyle, but the difficulty in culturing representative members constrains the characterization of behavioural and adaptive traits. Here we combine in silico and in vitro approaches to characterize the SOS transcriptional response to DNA damage in the Patescibacteria superphylum. Leveraging comparative genomics methods, we identify and experimentally define a novel binding motif for the SOS transcriptional repressor LexA, and we use this motif to characterize the conserved elements of the SOS regulatory network in Patescibacteria. The Patescibacteria LexA-binding motif has unusual direct-repeat structure, and comparative analyses reveal sequence and structural similarities with the distant Acidobacteria LexA protein. Our results reveal a shared core SOS network, complemented by varying degrees of LexA regulation of other core SOS functions. This work illustrates how the combination of computational and experimental methods can leverage metagenomic data to characterize transcriptional responses in uncultivated bacteria. The report of an operational SOS response in presumed symbiotic and parasitic bacteria hints at an intermediate step in the process of genome reduction.