The mb-1 gene, which encodes a protein associated with membrane-bound antibody, is expressed only at the early stages of B cell differentiation. To gain insight into the mechanisms that underlie temporally regulated gene expression, we examined the mb-1 promoter region for interactions with cell type-specific DNA binding proteins. Here, we report the characterization of a novel nuclear factor that recognizes the mb-1 promoter. This DNA binding activity, termed Early B cell Factor, or EBF, is expressed in early stage B cells, but not in late stage B cells, T cells or non-lymphoid cells. EBF recognizes the nucleotide sequence 5'-CAAGGGAAT-3' in the mb-1 and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II A alpha d promoters. The binding of EBF to DNA was characterized by DNase I footprinting and by methylation interference analysis which indicated both major and minor groove contacts. The specificity of EBF binding is distinct from that of other nuclear factors expressed in hematopoietic cells. EBF appears to consist of at least two polypeptides of approximately 70-75 kDa and 80-85 kDa. The EBF binding site was important for maximal mb-1 promoter activity in early stage B cells. Moreover, the EBF binding site conferred correct lineage- and stage-specific transcriptional activity upon a heterologous promoter in a context-dependent manner. Thus, EBF appears to represent an important transcriptional regulator of B cell specific gene expression.