We have previously reported that the binding site repertoires of heterodimers formed between retinoid X receptor (RXR) and either retinoic acid receptor (RAR) or thyroid hormone receptor (TR) bound to response elements consisting of directly repeated PuG(G/T)TCA motifs spaced by 1-5 bp [direct repeat (DR) elements 1-5] are highly similar to those of their corresponding DNA binding domains (DBDs). We have now mapped the dimerization surfaces located in the DBDs of RXR, RAR and TR, which are responsible for cooperative interaction on DR4 (RXR and TR) and DR5 (RXR and RAR). The D-box of the C-terminal CII finger of RXR provides one of the surfaces which is specifically required for the formation of the heterodimerization interfaces on both DR4 and DR5. Heterodimerization with the RXR DBD on DR5 specifically requires the tip of the RAR CI finger as the complementary surface, while a 7 amino acid sequence encompassing the 'prefinger region', but not the TR CI finger, is specifically required for efficient dimerization of TR and RXR DBDs on DR4. Importantly, DBD swapping experiments demonstrate not only that the binding site repertoires of the full-length receptors are dictated by those of their DBDs, but also that the formation of distinct dimerization interfaces between the DBDs are the critical determinants for cooperative DNA binding of these receptors to specific DRs.