We have isolated and characterized rat genomic DNA fragments bearing the two secretory elastase genes that are expressed in the exocrine pancreas. The complete exonic sequences for each of the genes as well as considerable intronic and flanking sequences are reported. Each elastase gene is interrupted by seven intervening sequences which are located at corresponding positions within the two genes, with one exception: the third intron of the elastase II gene has shifted one codon in the 5' direction. The placement of introns within the amino acid coding domains in part may reflect the formation of the progenitor serine protease gene by the duplication of an exon encoding a characteristic polypeptide structure comprising three beta sheets. The activation peptides of the zymogens and the signal peptides, which form discrete functional domains in the protein precursors, are encoded by separate exons. In addition to the TATAA box, the two genes share considerable sequence similarity in the 5'-proximal flanking regions (up to approximately 450 base pairs upstream); however, a number of gaps must be introduced to optimize the sequence alignment. The similarities are largely confined to six oligonucleotide regions with greater than 70% sequence conservation. The elastase I gene has a perfect repeating copolymer (GT)24 located 427-379 nucleotides upstream from the start of transcription. The elastase II gene has a similar GT-rich region (52/55 G or T) located 384-330 nucleotides upstream. Comparison of the 5'-flanking regions of the two elastase genes with those of pancreatic chymotrypsin and trypsin I and II reveals that one of the six conserved oligonucleotide regions is generally conserved for these genes as well. This conserved region contains putative enhancer core sequences.