Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) is a DNA-binding heterodimeric protein complex originally described in the transcriptional activation of the erythropoietin gene by hypoxia. This protein complex is composed of two subunits, HIF-1alpha and -1beta (aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator, ARNT). In this study, we used ARNT-deficient cells, derived from the mouse hepatoma cell line Hepa1c1c7, to further characterize HIF-1 complex formation and its relationship with gene activation by hypoxia and desferrioxamine (Df). Gel shift assays revealed that ARNT is absolutely required for the formation of the HIF-1 DNA-binding complex. Results from RNase protection assays and Northern blots showed that the lack of functional HIF-1 complex completely abrogated the response to hypoxia of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and the glycolytic enzymes aldolase A (ALDA) and phosphoglycerate kinase 1 (PGK-1), genes known to be upregulated by low oxygen tension. Desferrioxamine induction of VEGF and PGK-1 genes was reduced in the ARNT-deficient cells, but at difference with hypoxia, it was not completely suppressed. These results suggest that Df is able to activate gene transcription through HIF-1-independent mechanisms. Exposure to hypoxia or Df did not induce any changes in HIF-1alpha and -1beta mRNA levels, suggesting that posttranscriptional mechanisms are involved in HIF-1 complex activation.