The majority of eukaryotic organisms rely on molecular oxygen for respiratory energy production. When the supply of oxygen is compromised, a variety of acclimation responses are activated to reduce the detrimental effects of energy depletion. Various oxygen-sensing mechanisms have been described that are thought to trigger these responses, but they each seem to be kingdom specific and no sensing mechanism has been identified in plants until now. Here we show that one branch of the ubiquitin-dependent N-end rule pathway for protein degradation, which is active in both mammals and plants, functions as an oxygen-sensing mechanism in Arabidopsis thaliana. We identified a conserved amino-terminal amino acid sequence of the ethylene response factor (ERF)-transcription factor RAP2.12 to be dedicated to an oxygen-dependent sequence of post-translational modifications, which ultimately lead to degradation of RAP2.12 under aerobic conditions. When the oxygen concentration is low-as during flooding-RAP2.12 is released from the plasma membrane and accumulates in the nucleus to activate gene expression for hypoxia acclimation. Our discovery of an oxygen-sensing mechanism opens up new possibilities for improving flooding tolerance in crops. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.