The GATA family of zinc finger proteins are transcriptional regulators with critical functions in lineage differentiation and embryonic development. Based on structural and expression pattern comparisons, the GATA proteins have been subdivided into two groups. The first subgroup consists of GATA-1, -2, and -3, which are all highly expressed in the hematopoietic system, whereas GATA-4, -5, and -6 are present essentially in the heart and gut. We have isolated and functionally characterized the rat GATA-5 cDNA, which encodes a 45-kDa protein with 71%, 73%, and 97% homology to its amphibian, avian, and murine homologs, respectively. Northern blot analysis showed that rat GATA-5 is expressed in a dynamic pattern during embryonic and postnatal development. In the midgestation embryo, GATA-5 transcripts are most abundant in the heart and decrease dramatically in the postnatal heart; in contrast, GATA-5 expression is upregulated in the lung and gut during postnatal development. Functional studies with recombinant GATA-4, -5, and -6 proteins show that GATA-5 has preferential affinity for a subset of GATA elements found on cardiac promoters and differentially activate cardiac gene transcription. Structure-function analysis revealed the presence of an activation domain within the carboxy terminal region of GATA-5 that is essential for transcriptional regulation of target promoters. Linkage analysis localized Gata5 to distal mouse Chromosome (Chr) 2 in a conserved linkage group with genes localized to rat Chr 3q43 and human Chr 20q13.2-q13.3. The results suggest that GATA-5 may have specific downstream targets and that GATA-4, -5, and -6 can only partially substitute for each other in cardiogenesis. Thus, Gata5 probably plays a specialized evolutionary conserved role in cardiac development.