The collagen alpha 1(I) promoter, which is efficiently transcribed in NIH 3T3 fibroblasts, contains four binding sites for trans-acting factors, as demonstrated by DNase I protection assays (D. A. Brenner, R. A. Rippe, and L. Veloz, Nucleic Acids Res. 17:6055-6064, 1989). This study characterizes the DNA-binding proteins that interact with the two proximal footprinted regions, both of which contain a reverse CCAAT box and a G + C-rich 12-bp direct repeat. Analysis by DNase I protection assays, mobility shift assays, competition with specific oligonucleotides, binding with recombinant proteins, and reactions with specific antisera showed that the transcriptional factors nuclear factor I (NF-I) and Sp1 bind to these two footprinted regions. Because of overlapping binding sites, NF-I binding and Sp1 binding appear to be mutually exclusive. Overexpression of NF-I in cotransfection experiments with the alpha 1(I) promoter in NIH 3T3 fibroblasts increased alpha 1(I) expression, while Sp1 overexpression reduced this effect, as well as basal promoter activity. The herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase promoter, which contains independent NF-I- and Sp1-binding sites, was stimulated by both factors. Therefore, expression of the collagen alpha 1(I) gene may depend on the relative activities of NF-I and Sp1.