Histone acetyltransferases (HATs) GCN5 and PCAF (GCN5/PCAF) and CBP and p300 (CBP/p300) are transcription co-activators. However, how these two distinct families of HATs regulate gene activation remains unclear. Here, we show deletion of GCN5/PCAF in cells specifically and dramatically reduces acetylation on histone H3K9 (H3K9ac) while deletion of CBP/p300 specifically and dramatically reduces acetylations on H3K18 and H3K27 (H3K18/27ac). A ligand for nuclear receptor (NR) PPARδ induces sequential enrichment of H3K18/27ac, RNA polymerase II (Pol II) and H3K9ac on PPARδ target gene Angptl4 promoter, which correlates with a robust Angptl4 expression. Inhibiting transcription elongation blocks ligand-induced H3K9ac, but not H3K18/27ac, on the Angptl4 promoter. Finally, we show GCN5/PCAF and GCN5/PCAF-mediated H3K9ac correlate with, but are surprisingly dispensable for, NR target gene activation. In contrast, CBP/p300 and their HAT activities are essential for ligand-induced Pol II recruitment on, and activation of, NR target genes. These results highlight the substrate and site specificities of HATs in cells, demonstrate the distinct roles of GCN5/PCAF- and CBP/p300-mediated histone acetylations in gene activation, and suggest an important role of CBP/p300-mediated H3K18/27ac in NR-dependent transcription.