The 1 alpha,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (VD3)-dependent stimulation of osteocalcin (OC) and osteopontin (OP) gene transcription in bone tissue is mediated by interactions of trans-activating factors with distinct VD3-responsive elements (VDREs). Sequence variation between the OC- and OP-VDRE steroid hormone half-elements provides the potential for recognition by distinct hormone receptor homo- and heterodimers. However, the exact composition of endogenous VD3- induced complexes recognizing the OC- and OP-VDREs in osteoblasts has not been definitively established. To determine the identity of these complexes, we performed gel shift immunoassays with nuclear proteins from ROS 17/ 2.8 osteoblastic cells using a panel of monoclonal antibodies. We show that VD3- inducible complexes interacting with the OC- and OP-VDREs represent two distinct heterodimeric complexes, each composed of the vitamin D receptor (VDR) and the retinoid X receptor-alpha (RXR). The OC- and OP-VDR/RXR alpha heterodimers are immunoreactive with RXR antibodies and several antibodies directed against the ligand-binding domain of the VDR. However, while the OC-VDRE complex is also efficiently recognized by specific monoclonal antibodies contacting epitopes in or near the VDR DNA-binding domain (DBD) (between amino acids 57-164), the OP-VDRE complex is not efficiently recognized by these antibodies. By systematically introducing a series of point-mutations in the OC-VDRE, we find that two internal nucleotides of the proximal OC-VDRE half-site (nucleotide -449 and -448; 5'-AGGACA) determine differences in VDR immunoreactivity. These results are consistent with the well established polarity of RXR heterodimer binding to bipartite hormone response elements, with the VDR recognizing the 3'-half-element. Furthermore, our data suggest that the DBD of the VDR adopts different protein conformations when contacting distinct VDREs. Distinctions between the OC- and OP-VDR/RXR alpha complexes may reflect specialized requirements for VD3 regulation of OC and OP gene expression in response to physiological cues mediating osteoblast differentiation.