A modular system for assaying the activity of transcriptional regulatory signals based on herpes simplex virus (HSV) promoter and terminator sequences linked to the bacterial chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) gene has been used to study activation of HSV immediate early (IE) gene expression. Insertion of the SV40 72 base pair (bp) repeat increased mRNA levels by 15-fold thus demonstrating the ability of the HSV IE promoter to respond to a heterologous enhancer. A fragment containing part of the intergenic region located between HSV-2 immediate early (IE) genes-3 and -4/-5 increased mRNA levels by 5-fold in response to transactivation by an HSV virion structural polypeptide. The HSV activator fragment increased mRNA levels by 2-fold in the absence of transactivation indicating that cellular proteins are involved in IE gene expression. From HSV-1/HSV-2 DNA sequence comparisons we previously proposed that a DNA sequence, consensus TAATGARAT, present upstream of all HSV-1 and HSV-2 IE genes was required for the co-ordinate induction of IE genes. We show here that a synthetic oligonucleotide containing TAATGARAT conferred the ability to stimulate CAT activity only on transactivation: two copies of TAATGARAT stimulated expression by 2-fold while six copies gave an 8-fold increase. This activation, which was not dependent on orientation of the TAATGARAT sequence, directly demonstrates that TAATGARAT is a component of the IE gene activation sequence.