The vascular cell adhesion molecule 1 (VCAM-1) is a 110-kD member of the immunoglobulin gene superfamily expressed on the surface of interleukin 1 beta- or tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF)-stimulated endothelial cells. The cell surface protein functions as an inducible adhesion receptor for circulating mononuclear leukocytes and some tumor cells. We have previously characterized the genomic organization of the VCAM1 gene and described its chromosomal localization. In this report, the promoter of the VCAM1 gene is characterized. New transcription of the VCAM1 gene occurred when endothelial cells were treated with TNF. Fusion plasmids containing the 5' flanking sequence of the VCAM1 gene and the chloramphenicol acetyltransferase reporter gene were used to identify cis-acting sequences that direct the cytokine-induced transcription. When transfected into bovine aortic endothelial cells, constructs containing 755 bp of the 5' flanking sequence were induced by TNF. Within the cytokine-responsive region of the core promoter were functional NF-kappa B and GATA elements. Upstream of the core promoter, the VCAM1 5' flanking sequence contained a negative regulatory activity. NF-kappa B-mediated activation of VCAM1 gene expression may lead to endothelial expression of a mononuclear leukocyte adhesion molecule associated with initial events in the development of an atherosclerotic lesion.