The functional properties of the anaerobic responsive element (ARE) of the maize Adh1 gene have been analysed using a transient expression assay in electroporated maize protoplasts. The ARE functions in both orientations although inversion of the ARE sequence relative to the TATA box element produces slightly weaker promoter activity under anaerobic conditions and elevated expression under aerobic conditions. Promoter activity under anaerobic conditions is proportional to the number of complete ARE sequences in the Adh1 promoter. The ARE contains two sub-regions and dimers of sub-region II are as efficient as the wild-type sequence in activating gene expression under anaerobic conditions. However, sub-region I dimers do not appear capable of inducing gene expression in response to anaerobic stress. We conclude that sub-region II is essential for anaerobic induction of gene expression. Reporter gene expression remains constant when the spacing between sub-regions of the ARE is increased up to at least 64 bp, but increased spacing of 136 bp or greater abolishes expression in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions, indicating that a close association of the two sub-regions is required both for anaerobic responsiveness and for maximal levels of aerobic gene expression. When the ARE is placed upstream of position -90 of the CaMV 35S promoter, the ARE produces a high level of expression in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. The general enhancement of gene expression driven by the hybrid ARE/35S promoter in aerobic conditions requires an intact sub-region II motif since mutation or deletion of sub-region II from the hybrid promoter reduces the level of expression to that observed for the truncated 35S promoter alone. In addition, mutation of the sub-region I sequences in the ARE/35S hybrid promoter does not significantly reduce expression in aerobic conditions, relative to pARE/delta 35S(-90), suggesting that sub-region I does not contribute to this general enhancer function.