Genomic clones including the 5' flanking regions of the AQP2 (aquaporin 2) gene were isolated, and the promoter region was examined by transiently transfecting a promoter-luciferase reporter fusion gene into renal cultured epithelial cells. An orientation specific promoter for the AQP2 gene was found within the proximal 3 kb of 5'-flanking region. Minimal basal promoter activity of the AQP2 gene was found within 198 bp upstream from the transcription start site by deletion analysis. Sequencing the transcriptionally active region revealed a typical TATA box, adenosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate (cAMP) responsive element (CRE) and three putative CCAAT boxes in the proximal 1.2-kb region. Significantly, a GATA motif, AP1, AP2, and SP1 transcriptional factor consensus sites were also found in this region. Exposure to cAMP-enhancing agents (1 nM vasopressin or 20 mM forskolin and 250 mM 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine) showed that these agents increased luciferase activity in a parallel fashion, suggesting that vasopressin-induced AQP2 gene transcription is mediated through increases in intracellular cAMP in at least one renal cell type, the LLC-PK1 cells. The mechanism of cAMP responsiveness of AQP2 gene transcription was further studied using a series of deletion mutants in renal epithelial cells and other cell types. The cAMP regulatory motifs were shown to exist in a 50-bp sequence between -340 and -290 (containing CRE) and a 65-bp sequence (containing an AP2 site) between -150 and the ATG start site in LLC-PK1 cells. In rat inner medullary collecting duct (IMCD) cells, the cAMP regulatory motifs also exist in a 50-bp sequence between -340 and -290 (containing CRE) and in a 10-bp sequence between -160 and -150 (containing an SP1 site). These separate regions may cooperate to confer full cAMP inducibility to the AQP2 gene in a cell-specific manner.