Intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1), a cell-adhesion molecule critically involved in leukocyte trafficking and adherence, displays tissue-specific and cytokine-specific expression profiles. Although human dermal microvascular endothelial cells (HDMEC) constitutively express ICAM-1, keratinocytes (HK) do not. Interleukin-1 (IL-1) upregulates ICAM-1 expression in HDMEC, but fails to do so in either HK or A431, a human squamous carcinoma cell line, even though both have IL-1 receptors and express ICAM-1 on exposure to other cytokines. We have previously characterized a human ICAM-1 genomic clone that contains the 5' flanking transcriptional regulatory region. To test the hypothesis that tissue- and cytokine-specific ICAM-1 gene expression results from the interaction of constitutive and inducible tissue-specific trans-acting factors with distinct cis-elements of the ICAM-1 gene, various ICAM-1-based reporter gene (CAT) plasmids were constructed. Transcriptional activity of these various constructs was assessed after transient transfection into HDMEC and A431. A critical ICAM-1 region was identified that conferred enhanced expression of CAT in HDMEC and suppressed expression of CAT in A431. This same region further enhanced CAT expression in transfected HDMEC treated with IL-1 alpha, yet no such enhancement was seen with IL-1 treatment of identically transfected A431. However, treatment of A431 transfectants with IFN gamma did result in enhanced CAT expression, demonstrating reversal of A431 cell context suppression of the ICAM-1-based reporter gene construct. These data implicate the existence of both tissue- and cytokine-specific responsive elements in the 5' flanking region of the ICAM-1 gene and demonstrate that regulatory effects directed by such elements are dependent upon their cellular context. Moreover, they provide the basis for identification of specific cis-acting genetic elements, the trans-acting factors with which they interact, and the molecular mechanisms by which they regulate transcription of the ICAM-1 gene.