Transcriptional promoters of mitochondrial DNA have diverged extensively in the course of mammalian evolution. Nevertheless, the transcriptional machinery and the overall mechanisms of transcriptional control and regulation seem to be conserved. We have compared the human and murine homologs of the major DNA-binding transcriptional activator, mitochondrial transcription factor 1 (mtTF1), with unexpected results. Both proteins have similar chromatographic and transcriptional properties and are the same size. Both recognize and bind sequences between -12 and -39 within their respective homologous promoters. However, the sequences that they recognize are markedly divergent; although the base pairs they contact are situated similarly or identically with respect to the transcriptional start site, sequence identity between the two species' contact points is less than 50%. Interestingly, the two proteins are functionally interchangeable; each can bind to the heterologous light-strand promoter and can activate transcription by the heterologous mitochondrial RNA polymerase. Thus, the RNA polymerase or some as yet undetected transcription factor, rather than mTF1, may determine the strict species specificity of mitochondrial transcription. Flexible DNA sequence recognition by mtTF1, on the other hand, may be a principal facilitating mechanism for rapid control sequence evolution.