We have characterized the specific DNA regulatory elements responsible for the function of the human cardiac troponin C gene (cTnC) muscle-specific enhancer in myogenic cells. We used functional transient transfection assays with deletional and site-specific mutagenesis to evaluate the role of the conserved sequence elements. Gel electrophoresis mobility shift assays (EMSA) demonstrated the ability of the functional sites to interact with nuclear proteins. We demonstrate that three distinct transcription activator binding sites commonly found in muscle-specific enhancers (a MEF-2 site, a MEF-3 site, and at least four redundant E-box sites) all contribute to full enhancer activity but a CArG box does not. Mutation of either the MEF-2 or MEF-3 sites or deletion of the E-boxes reduces expression by 70% or more. Furthermore, the MEF-2 site and the E-boxes specifically bind, respectively, to MEF-2 and myogenic determination factors derived from nuclear extracts. EMSA assays using a MEF-3 containing oligonucleotide revealed indistinguishable separation patterns with extracts from myogenic cells and nonmyogenic cells. These data suggest that expression of the cTnC gene in slow-twitch skeletal muscle is sustained through complex interactions at the 3'Ile enhancer between muscle-specific and nontissue-specific transcription factors: either a myogenic bHLH complex or MEF-2 can activate transcription but only in the presence of a third transcriptional activator that appears not to be muscle specific. We conclude from these observations that the cTnC 3'Ile element is a composite enhancer that functions through the combined interactions of at least five regulatory elements and their cognate binding factors: three or four E-boxes, a MEF-2 site, and a MEF-3 site. The data support the notion that all of these sites contribute to enhancer function in cell systems in an additive way but that none are absolutely required for enhancer activity. The data imply that the levels of transcription of cTnC in myogenic tissues in which the activities of one of the transcriptional factors is lacking would be partially but not wholly suppressed. Our data support the critical role of E-box sites in conjunction with the adjacent elements. Hence, we assign CTnC gene regulation to the "ordinary" rather than to the "novel" category of transcriptional regulation during skeletal myogenesis.