The nuclear hormone receptors comprise a superfamily of ligand-modulated transcription factors that regulate homeostasis, reproduction, development, and differentiation. Three amino acids within the zinc finger DNA binding motif determine target gene specificity. Groups of receptors exist with similar DNA binding specificity. A complex carboxy terminal region mediates ligand binding, dimerization, and hormone-relieved transcriptional inactivation. We summarize the current understanding of these phenomena and suggest a novel model that structurally and functionally links these events. This "regulatory zipper model" may explain the mechanism by which ligand activates nuclear hormone receptors.