Two genomic clones (lambda Ubi-1 and lambda Ubi-2) encoding the highly conserved 76 amino acid protein ubiquitin have been isolated from maize. Sequence analysis shows that both genes contain seven contiguous direct repeats of the protein coding region in a polyprotein conformation. The deduced amino acid sequence of all 14 repeats is identical and is the same as for other plant ubiquitins. The use of transcript-specific oligonucleotide probes shows that Ubi-1 and Ubi-2 are expressed constitutively at 25 degrees C but are inducible to higher levels at elevated temperatures in maize seedlings. Both genes contain an intron in the 5' untranslated region which is inefficiently processed following a brief, severe heat shock. The transcription start site of Ubi-1 has been determined and a transcriptional fusion of 0.9 kb of the 5' flanking region and the entire 5' untranslated sequence of Ubi-1 with the coding sequence of the gene encoding the reporter molecule chloramphenicol acetyl transferase (CAT) has been constructed (pUBI-CAT). CAT assays of extracts of protoplasts electroporated with this construct show that the ubiquitin gene fragment confers a high level of CAT expression in maize and other monocot protoplasts but not in protoplasts of the dicot tobacco. Expression from the Ubi-1 promoter of pUBI-CAT yields more than a 10-fold higher level of CAT activity in maize protoplasts than expression from the widely used cauliflower mosaic virus 35S promoter of a 35S-CAT construct. Conversely, in tobacco protoplasts CAT activity from transcription of pUBI-CAT is less than one tenth of the level from p35S-CAT.