The gene encoding 2',3'-cyclic nucleotide 3'-phosphodiesterase (CNP) is one of the earliest myelin genes to be expressed in the brain. It is expressed at basal levels in some non-neural tissues but at much higher levels in the nervous system, and its relevance and mechanism are unknown. Using transgenic mice, we examined the expression pattern conferred by a 4-kilobase (-kb) 5'-flanking sequence of the mouse CNP gene coupled to the bacterial lacZ reporter gene. Here we report that this 4-kb fragment contains sufficient information to direct expression of the transgene to the tissue and/or cell type, in which CNP is normally expressed. In the central nervous system (CNS), CNP-lacZ expression was regulated in a temporal manner, consistent with endogenous CNP expression. Transgene expression was detected in embryonic brain and spinal cord in immature oligodendrocytes, and it significantly increased with age. In adult mice, beta-galactosidase activity (which appeared to be oligodendrocyte specific) was found essentially in white matter areas of the CNS. Moreover, the transgene was expressed in peripheral nervous system, testis, and thymus-tissues that normally express CNP. Taken together, our results provide strong evidence that cis-acting regulatory elements, necessary to direct spatial and temporal expression of the transgene in oligodendrocytes, are located within the 4-kb 5'-flanking sequence of the mouse CNP gene. This promoter could be a valuable tool to target specific expression of other transgenes to oligodendrocytes, and may provide important new insights into myelination or dysmyelination.