Telomerase, the enzyme that synthesizes telomeric DNA, is not expressed in most human somatic cells but is activated with in vitro immortalization and during tumorigenesis, and repressed by cell differentiation. Of the two components of the core enzyme, the catalytic protein hTERT is limiting for activity. To investigate mechanisms of hTERT gene regulation, we have cloned genomic sequences encompassing the complete hTERT transcription unit. The hTERT gene consists of 16 exons and 15 introns spanning approximately 35 kb. Transient transfections of immortal human cells with potential regulatory 5' sequences linked to a reporter, combined with deletion analysis of these sequences, indicated that elements responsible for promoter activity are contained within a region extending from 330 bp upstream of the ATG to the second exon of the gene. Assays in different cell types have shown that the hTERT promoter is inactive in normal and in transformed pre-immortal cells, but, like telomerase, it is activated with cell immortalization. Sequence analysis revealed that the hTERT promoter is GC-rich, lacks TATA and CAAT boxes but contains binding sites for several transcription factors that may be involved in its regulation. The abundance of these sites suggests the possibility that hTERT expression may be subject to multiple levels of control and be regulated by different factors in different cellular contexts.