The promoter regions of several phorbol diester-(TPA-) inducible genes (collagenase, stromelysin, hMT IIA, and SV40) share a conserved 9 bp motif. Synthetic copies of these closely related sequences conferred TPA inducibility upon heterologous promoters. Footprinting analysis indicated that these TPA-responsive elements (TREs) are recognized by a common cellular protein: the previously described transcription factor AP-1. A point mutation that eliminated the basal and induced activity of the TRE also interfered with its ability to bind AP-1. Treatment of cultured cells with TPA led to a rapid 3- to 4-fold increase in TRE binding activity, by a posttranslational mechanism. These results strongly suggest that AP-1 is at the receiving end of a complex pathway responsible for transmitting the effects of phorbol ester tumor promoters from the plasma membrane to the transcriptional machinery.