The Sar1 GTPase is an essential component of COPII vesicle coats involved in export of cargo from the endoplasmic reticulum of mammalian cells. To begin to elucidate its mechanism of action, we now report the identity of the mammalian homolog to the yeast Sec12 guanine nucleotide exchange factor (18% identity) that promotes Sar1 activation. Mammalian Sec12 (mSec12) is a type II transmembrane protein with a large cytosolic domain, a fragment of which has previously been reported as the transcription factor prolactin regulatory element binding protein (PREB). mSec12 promotes efficient guanine nucleotide exchange on Sar1, but not Arf1 or Rab GTPases. mSec12 is localized to the endoplasmic reticulum and an antibody to the cytosolic domain of mSec12 potently inhibits Sar1 recruitment and the formation of COPII vesicles in vitro. The dominant negative GDP-restricted mutant Sar1[T39N] is shown to be a potent inhibitor of mSec12 activity, consistent with its role in preventing COPII vesicle formation in vitro and during transient expression in vivo. We propose that mSec12 is an evolutionarily distant guanine nucleotide exchange factor directing Sar1 GTPase activation in mammalian cells. Its divergence from yeast Sec12p may reflect the specialized needs of the mammalian endoplasmic reticulum involving the formation of Sar1-dependent transitional elements (Aridor M, et al. J Cell Biol 2001;152:213-229) and selection of cargo into prebudding complexes.