From a human cosmid library, we isolated a clone (5B) with an insert of 32 kb, encoding the amino-terminal and the 5'-end flanking region of the alpha 1(VI) collagen gene. Exon 1 was found to be 194 bp and contain the 5' untranslated region plus 97 bp coding sequence. Exon 2 consists of 130 bp, a size that is conserved across the chicken and mouse species. S1-nuclease-protection assays and primer-extension analysis, using mRNA from human dermal fibroblasts, show the presence of multiple transcription start sites located in a region of approximately 20 nucleotides. Canonical TATA and CAAT boxes, as found in the chicken and mouse alpha 1 promoters, were absent in the human alpha 1(VI) promoter. The promoter region from positions -1 to -190, is a polypyrimidine/polypurine-rich region containing 12 CCCTCCCC (CT element consensus) sequences and has multiple potential binding sites for the Sp1, and AP2 transcription factors. These regulatory proteins bind to the alpha 2(VI) promoters [Saitta, B. & Chu, M.-L. (1994) Eur. J. Biochem. 223, 675-682]. To test the transcriptional activity of the alpha 1 promoter, transient transfection experiments of the DNA constructs were performed in human dermal fibroblasts and in human fibrosarcoma (HT1080) cell lines. The DNA constructs drive the expression of the chloramphenicol acetyl transferase (CAT) gene. The results show strong CAT activity for the constructs at positions -1700, -298 and -257, while low activity was found for the constructs at positions -4400, -142 and -5 when transfected in fibroblasts. The experiments also identified positive and negative regulatory regions in the alpha 1(VI) promoter CAT constructs when transfected in fibroblasts, but did not identify them in the fibrosarcoma cells.