The 615-bp 5' flanking region of the human TNF-alpha/cachectin gene was isolated and ligated to the luciferase reporter gene. In addition, a series of truncated promoter constructs was generated by exonuclease III digestion. The promoter activity of these constructs was studied in a transient transfection system using the TNF-alpha-producing U937 cell line. Full-length and truncated TNF promoter constructions extending from -615 to -95 bp relative to the transcription start site (TSS) could be induced by phorbol esters. A construct truncated to within 36 bp of the TSS (and within 11 bp of the TATAA box) was inactive. Therefore, the phorbol ester responsive is localized in the TNF/cachectin promoter to a relatively short region proximal to the TATAA box.