Members of the GATA family of zinc finger transcription factors regulate critical steps of cellular differentiation during vertebrate development. In the studies described in this report, we have isolated and functionally characterized the murine GATA-5 cDNA and protein and defined the temporal and spatial pattern of GATA-5 gene expression during mammalian development. The amino terminus of the mouse GATA-5 protein shares high level amino acid sequence identity with the murine GATA-4 and -6 proteins, but not with other members of the GATA family. GATA-5 binds to the functionally important CEF-1 nuclear protein binding site in the cardiac-specific slow/cardiac troponin C (cTnC) transcriptional enhancer and overexpression of GATA-5 transactivates the cTnC enhancer in noncardiac muscle cell lines. During embryonic and postnatal development, the pattern of GATA-5 gene expression differs significantly from that of other GATA family members. In the primitive streak embryo, GATA-5 mRNA is detectable in the precardiac mesoderm. Within the embryonic heart, the GATA-5 gene is expressed within the atrial and ventricular chambers (ED 9.5), becomes restricted to the atrial endocardium (ED 12.5), and is subsequently not expressed in the heart during late fetal and postnatal development. Moreover, coincident with the earliest steps in lung development, only the GATA-5 gene is expressed within the pulmonary mesenchyme. Finally, the GATA-5 gene is expressed in tissue-restricted subsets of smooth muscle cells (SMCs), including bronchial SMCs and SMCs in the bladder wall. These data are consistent with a model in which GATA-5 performs a unique temporally and spatially restricted function in the embryonic heart and lung. Moreover, these data suggest that GATA-5 may play an important role in the transcriptional program(s) that underlies smooth muscle cell diversity.