Heme oxygenase (HO) catalyzes the rate-controlling step of physiologic heme catabolism, namely, the oxidation of the alpha-methene bridge of the macrocycle with formation of CO, Fe, and biliverdin. HO-1, the first isoform of HO to be identified, is highly inducible by a large number of physical and chemical factors. Many of these factors cause oxidative or other stresses to cells. In this work, we have studied the regulation of the chick HO-1 gene, using selected promoter--reporter constructs of the gene transiently or stably transfected into primary cultures of chick embryo liver cells or into the LMH line of chicken hepatoma cells. By use of deletional and mutational analyses, DNase protection, and electromobility shift DNA-binding assays, we identified a heretofore undefined regulatory region in the 5'-UTR of the chick HO-1 gene which confers up-regulation of reporter gene (luciferase) expression in the presence of heme and other selected metalloporphyrins. This new metalloporphyrin-responsive element (MPRE) was localized to a 200-bp region 3.8 to 3.6 kb upstream of the transcription starting point of the chick HO-1 gene. It responded particularly to heme and cobalt protoporphyrin with maximal inductions at 10-15 microM concentrations and 15-18 h of exposure. In contrast, sodium arsenite, a prototypical stress-type inducer of HO-1, led to down-regulation of the reporter gene down stream of MPRE. DNase analysis identified an 18-mer oligonucleotide that was required for the metalloporphyrin response (5'-(-3711)TATTGCAGCTGTGTGGGG-3'). Mutations at any of four sites within this oligonucleotide abrogated the metalloporphyrin-dependent up-regulation of reporter gene expression. Nuclear protein extracts of cells treated with heme or cobalt protoporphyrin showed specific enhanced binding to this 18-mer. We conclude that the chick HO-1 promoter region contains a unique sequence that subserves up-regulation of the gene by metalloporphyrins and propose the name "metalloporphyrin-responsive element" for this sequence.