Analysis of the relative inducibility of an extensive series of mutant glucocorticoid response elements (GREs) defines features critical to the constitution of an active GRE. Assuming that function as a GRE reflects binding of glucocorticoid receptor, our activity data are consistent with the recognition of the GRE as two hexamer half-sites, each half-site recognized by a single subunit of a receptor dimer, probably in a cooperative fashion. Integrity of both half-sites is necessary for an active element, and spacing of the half-sites is critical. The identity of 1 basepair within the hexamer half-site is unconstrained; the receptor probably makes no base-specific contacts at this position. In contrast, at other positions within the half-site, limited substitutions (if any) can be tolerated. These results along with data from certain insertion mutations suggest that the receptor recognizes each hexamer half-site as two separable subelements. A further implication is that the DNA-binding domain of the glucocorticoid receptor is composed of distinct subdomains, which interact with the subelements of the recognition sequence.