Expression of the human alpha and beta globin gene clusters is regulated by remote sequences, referred to as HS -40 and the beta-locus control region (beta-LCR) that lie 5-40 kb upstream of the genes they activate. Because of their common ancestry, similar organization and coordinate expression it has often been assumed that regulation of the globin gene clusters by HS -40 and the beta-LCR occurs via similar mechanisms. Using interspecific hybrids containing chromosomes with naturally occurring deletions of HS -40 we have shown that, in contrast to the beta-LCR, this element exerts no discernible effect on long-range chromatin structure and in addition does not influence formation of DNase I hypersensitive sites at the alpha globin promoters. These differences in the behaviour of HS -40 and the beta-LCR may reflect their contrasting influence on gene expression in transgenic mice and may result from the differing requirements of these elements in their radically different, natural chromosomal environments; the alpha cluster lying within a region of constitutively 'open' chromatin and the beta cluster in a segment of chromatin which opens in a tissue-specific manner. Differences in the hierarchical control of the alpha and beta globin clusters may exemplify more general differences in the regulation of eukaryotic genes which lie in similar open or closed chromosomal regions.