Cell-specific expression of the insulin gene is dependent on a conserved 8-basepair sequence, GCCATCTG, present in two copies in the 5' flanking DNA of the rat insulin 1 gene (Nir and Far elements). A protein factor with well characterized binding affinities binds to this sequence and is unique to the nuclei of insulin-producing cells. Using the Nir element as a probe to screen a hamster insulinoma cDNA expression library, we cloned two cDNA inserts that encode two related helix-loop-helix DNA-binding proteins: Syrian hamster Pan-1 (shPan-1) and Syrian hamster Pan-2 (shPan-2). These clones have minimal differences from the previously reported human E47/E12 and rat PAN (rPan) DNA-binding proteins. In vitro translated protein products of both clones bound the insulin gene promoter Nir and far elements as well as the E2 elements of the mu heavy chain and kappa light chain immunoglobulin genes. Treating insulinoma cell nuclear extract with antiserum selectively directed to each of the two shPan proteins demonstrated the presence of each form of shPan in separate DNA-binding complexes, which together form the previously described, cell-specific, Nir element-binding complex. We conclude that shPan-1 and shPan-2 are the hamster homologs of the ubiquitous E47/E12 and rPan proteins, but form parts of distinct DNA-binding complexes apparently found only in the nuclei of insulin-producing cells.