The extracellular glycoprotein cytotactin is expressed in a characteristic and complex spatiotemporal sequence during development of the chicken embryo. To identify the various control elements underlying its expression, the promoter region of the cytotactin gene has been isolated and characterized. Clones were isolated from genomic libraries by using a fragment near the 5' end of the cDNA sequence. The sequence of this cDNA fragment was found to be distributed over two exons separated by a large first intron. The site of transcription initiation was determined by S1 nuclease and primer-extension mapping. Sequencing of a 4.3-kilobase (kb) genomic DNA clone that contains 3986 base pairs (bp) upstream of the RNA start site, the first exon, and part of the first intron revealed a number of sequence motifs implicated in the regulation and expression of eukaryotic genes. These included CCAAT boxes, phorbol ester-responsive elements, enhancer elements, and a consensus TATA sequence located 24 bp upstream of the major RNA cap site. The flanking sequence also contained a number of regions of dyad symmetry and direct repeats unique to cytotactin, as well as an array of A + T-rich sequences that resemble engrailed elements. Constructs containing fragments of the upstream region of the cytotactin gene fused to a promoterless gene for chloramphenicol acetyltransferase were transiently transfected into chicken embryo fibroblasts to define functional promoter sequences. Although sequences from -721 to +121 exhibited minimal promoter activity, the entire region between -3986 to +374 was required to yield maximal expression in chicken embryo fibroblasts. Transfection of the -3986/+374 chloramphenicol acetyltransferase plasmid into the human U251MG astrocytoma cells but not HT1080 fibrosarcoma cells resulted in chloramphenicol acetyltransferase expression, consistent with the observed synthesis of cytotactin protein only by the U251MG cell line. These data indicate that the chicken cytotactin promoter can control expression in a cell type-specific fashion within cells of another species. These studies provide a basis for the dissection of cis elements and trans factors that govern the developmental expression of the cytotactin gene.