Histones are the major protein component of chromatin. Except H4, all histone classes consist of several subtypes. The H3 family includes two replacement histone genes, H3.3A and H3.3B, which both encode the same protein and are expressed independently from the cell cycle. Since the two genes encode an identical protein, we analyzed whether they are differentially expressed. Therefore we cloned, sequenced and characterized the regulatory structures of the H3.3A gene and compared these with the corresponding regions in the H3.3B gene. In contrast to the H3.3B promoter, the promoter region of the H3.3A gene revealed neither a TATA nor any CCAAT boxes but an initiator element and several SP1 binding sequence motifs within an overall GC-rich sequence. Northern blot analysis of RNA from six human cell lines revealed that every cell line expressed each of the H3 isoform genes H3.1, H3.3A and H3.3B. In contrast, analysis of total RNA from human tissues showed a differential expression of the H3 isoform genes. The H3.3 genes are essentially only expressed in adult tissue, whereas the H3.1 gene is transcribed just in fetal tissue. The functional relevance of the elements identified by sequence analysis was established using a reporter gene assay with deletion constructs of the H3.3A promoter. In this assay a 256 bp fragment was sufficient for the full promoter activity and three promoter segments, each containing SP1 binding motifs, contribute to the H3.3A gene expression. The possible functional relevance of the differences between the two H3.3 genes in structure and expression is discussed.