We have used reporter gene constructs to study the cis regulation of the Hoxd-11 gene (previously Hox-4.6) in transgenic mice. We identified a 5 kb regulatory unit, which was able to reproduce important aspects of the initial activation of the gene along the major body axis. The comparison of the nucleotide sequence of this DNA fragment with the corresponding avian genomic region revealed the presence of seven highly homologous stretches of DNA outside the protein coding regions. In particular, the 3' flanking region contained two such domains that are required to mediate the embryonic activation. A chimeric construct containing the two short homologous regions from the chicken gene could replace the complete murine fragment thus demonstrating that the conserved domains carry the main regulatory elements involved in this activation. The first half of this bipartite regulatory region has enhancer activity when tested with a heterologous promoter, while the second half is required to restrict the enhancer activity to the proper expression domain. These results suggest that stage- and tissue-specific cooperation between regulatory elements is required to control properly the activity of the Hoxd-11 promoter.