We report the isolation and characterization of genomic sequences coding for the 5' end of human retinoic acid receptor beta 1, a fetal RAR isoform which is also expressed in small cell lung cancers. Primer extension analysis revealed a principal transcription start site with a secondary site 23 bp further upstream in both SCLC and fetal tissues. The sequences isolated were CpG-rich between -60 and the 3' end of the first exon but there were no features like a TATA-box or an Inr element. In several important aspects, the human RAR beta 1 differs from its mouse counterpart. The 5'-UTR is 823 bp long and is encoded by four exons (vs two in the mouse giving a 477 bp UTR). The 5' end of the mouse cDNA has been mapped to a 67 bp CT repeat which is absent in our sequences. We were also unable to find evidence for a human isoform RAR beta 3 which is widely expressed in mouse tissues.