Expression of MHC class I genes varies according to developmental stage and type of tissues. To study the basis of class I gene regulation in tissues in vivo, we examined binding of nuclear proteins to the conserved cis sequence of the murine H-2 gene, class I regulatory element (CRE), which contains two independent factor-binding sites, region I and region II. In gel mobility shift analyses we found that extracts from adult tissues that express class I genes, such as spleen and liver, had binding activity to region I. In contrast, extracts from brain, which does not express class I genes, did not show region I binding activity. In addition, fetal tissues that express class I gene at very low levels, also did not reveal region I binding activity. Binding activity to region I became detectable during the neonatal period when class I gene expression sharply increases. Most of these tissues showed binding activity to region II, irrespective of class I gene expression. Although region II contained a sequence similar to the AP-1 recognition site, AP-1 was not responsible for the region II binding activity detected in this work. These results illustrate a correlation between region I binding activity and developmental and tissue-specific expression of MHC class I genes. The CRE exerts an enhancer-like activity in cultured fibroblasts. We evaluated the significance of each factor binding to CRE. Single 2-bp mutations were introduced into the CRE by site-directed mutagenesis and the ability of each mutant to elicit the enhancer activity was tested in transient CAT assays. A mutation that eliminated region I protein binding greatly impaired enhancer activity. A mutation that eliminated region II binding also caused a lesser but measurable effect. We conclude that region I and region II are both capable of enhancing transcription of the class I gene. These results indicate that in vivo regulation of MHC class I gene expression is mediated by binding of trans-acting factors to the CRE.