In higher plants, the expression of the nitrate assimilation pathway is highly regulated. Although the molecular mechanisms involved in this regulation are currently being elucidated, very little is known about the trans-acting factors that allow expression of the nitrate and nitrite reductase genes which code for the first enzymes in the pathway. In the fungus Neurospora crassa, nit-2, the major nitrogen regulatory gene, activates the expression of unlinked structural genes that specify nitrogen-catabolic enzymes during conditions of nitrogen limitation. The nit-2 gene encodes a regulatory protein containing a single zinc finger motif defined by the C-X2-C-X17-C-X2-C sequence. This DNA-binding domain recognizes the promoter region of N. crassa nitrogen-related genes and fragments derived from the tomato nia gene promoter. The observed specificity of the binding suggests the existence of a NIT2-like homolog in higher plants. PCR and cross-hybridization techniques were used to isolate, respectively, a partial cDNA from Nicotiana plumbaginifolia and a full-length cDNA from Nicotiana tabacum. These clones encode a NIT2-like protein (named NTL1 for nit-2-like), characterized by a single zinc finger domain, defined by the C-X2-C-X18-C-X2-C amino acids, and associated with a basic region. The amino acid sequence of NTL1 is 60% homologous to the NIT2 sequence in the zinc finger domain. The Ntl1 gene is present as a unique copy in the diploid N. plumbaginifolia species. The characteristics of Ntl1 gene expression are compatible with those of a regulator of the nitrate assimilation pathway, namely weak nitrate inducibility and regulation by light.