While only two gamma-crystallins have been identified in the human eye lens, molecular studies indicate that the human gamma-crystallins are encoded in a multigene family comprising at least seven closely related members. Sequence analysis of five of these genes has suggested that three (gamma 1-2, G3, and G4) are potentially active, while two (G1 psi and G2 psi) correspond to closely related pseudogenes. Here we report on the detailed structure of a sixth gamma-crystallin gene, G5, and our results obtained with transient expression assays to characterize both the promoter activity and translation products of five members of the gene family. We show that 5'-flanking sequences of G1 psi and G2 psi lacked detectable promoter activity, while the corresponding sequences of G3, G4, and G5 were able to direct high levels of expression of the bacterial chloramphenicol acetyltransferase gene in primary lens epithelia, but not in cultures of nonlens origin. Detailed sequence comparisons indicated that active genes contained several conserved sequence tracts 5' of the TATA box which may constitute functional elements of a lens-specific gamma-crystallin promoter. Expression of the gamma-crystallin coding sequences from the human metallothionein IIA promoter in nonlens cells facilitated characterization of the polypeptides encoded by individual gamma-genes and, in future studies, should permit comparison of these proteins with distinct gamma-crystallins in the human lens.