The nuclear factor I (NFI) family of site-specific DNA-binding proteins is required for both the cell-type specific transcription of many viral and cellular genes and for the replication of adenovirus DNA. Although binding sites for NFI proteins within the promoters of several tissue-specific genes have been shown to be essential for their expression, it is unclear which NFI gene products function in specific tissues during development. We have isolated cDNAs from all four murine NFI genes (gene designations Nfia, Nfib, Nfic, and Nfix), assessed the embryonic and postnatal expression patterns of the NFI genes, and determined the ability of specific NFI proteins to activate transcription from the NFI-dependent mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV) promoter. In adult mice, all four NFI genes are most highly expressed in lung, liver, heart, and other tissues but only weakly expressed in spleen and testis. The embryonic expression patterns of the NFI genes is complex, with NFI-A transcripts appearing earliest-within 9 days postcoitum in the heart and developing brain. The four genes exhibit unique but overlapping patterns of expression during embryonic development, with high level expression of NFI-A, NFI-B, and NFI-X transcripts in neocortex and extensive expression of the four genes in muscle, connective tissue, liver, and other organ systems. The four NFI gene products studied differ in their ability to activate expression of the NFI-dependent MMTV promoter, with the NFI-B protein being most active and the NFI-A protein being least active. These data are discussed in the context of the developmental expression patterns of known NFI-responsive genes. The differential activation of an NFI-dependent promoter, together with the expression patterns observed for the four genes, indicate that the NFI proteins may play an important role in regulating tissue-specific gene expression during mammalian embryogenesis.