Several recent reports have demonstrated that small activating dsRNA [double-stranded RNA; saRNA (small activating dsRNA)] complementary to promoter regions can up-regulate gene expression in mammalian cells, a phenomenon termed RNAa (RNA activation). However, the mechanism of RNAa remains obscure with regard to what is the target molecule for promoter-targeted saRNA and what are the proteins involved in this process. p21Waf1/Cip1 (p21) [CDKN1A (cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor 1A)], an important tumour suppressor gene, is among the genes that can be activated by RNAa in tumour cells. In the present study, we provide direct evidence that p21 promoter-targeted saRNA interact with its intended target on the p21 promoter to activate p21 expression. This process is associated with recruitment of RNA polymerase II and AGO2 (argonaute 2) protein to the saRNA-target site. Additionally, we found that several hnRNPs (heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoproteins) (A1, A2/B1 and C1/C2) are associated with saRNA. Further studies show that hnRNPA2/B1 interacts with the saRNA in vivo and in vitro and is required for RNAa activity. These findings indicate that RNAa results from specific targeting of promoters and reveals additional mechanistic details of RNAa.