We have analysed the molecular basis for the function of the C/EBP alpha transactivation domain. We have previously found that the three C/EBP alpha transactivation elements (TEs) synergistically activate transcription in mammalian cells. We now report that two of these elements, TE-I and -II, co-operatively mediate in vitro binding of C/EBP alpha to TBP and TFIIB, two essential components of the RNA polymerase II basal transcriptional apparatus. The TBP and TFIIB binding elements of C/EBP alpha coincide, and require amino acid motifs conserved between the activating members of the C/EBP family. These same motifs are necessary for the transcription activation function of TE-I and -II in both yeast and mammalian cells. Our data demonstrate a biochemical basis for the modular buildup of transactivation domains, and indicate that this modularity is conserved in eukaryote evolution. We also show that the same amino acid motifs in a cellular activator can co-operate to mediate contacts between the activator and two distinct basal transcription factors. These results suggest that domains of TBP and TFIIB that interact with activating surfaces are functionally similar and may be structurally related, and support the idea that the same amino acid motifs in an activator carry out multiple functions during the initiation process.