The estrogen receptor (ER) typically activates gene transcription by binding to estrogen-responsive elements (EREs). The brain creatine kinase (BCK) promoter is responsive to estrogen but contains no ERE-related sequence. To investigate the mechanism of estrogen induction, we have introduced the estrogen receptor into HeLa cells and primary rat cardiomyocytes and fibroblasts along with 195 bp of BCK promoter linked to a chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) reporter gene. A 10-fold stimulation of CAT activity was observed in the presence of beta-estradiol in both HeLa and rat primary fibroblasts, but no induction was observed in primary rat cardiomyocytes. In contrast, a control vitellogenin gene construct which contains a typical ERE was induced in an ER-dependent manner in all cell types studied. Estrogen induction in HeLa was not sensitive to cycloheximide and was blocked by the ER antagonists tamoxifen and ICI 164,384. Analysis of 5' deletion and linker-scanning mutations indicates sequences between bp -45 and -75 including a TA-rich sequence and a CCAAT sequence to be crucial for stimulation of the BCK promoter by the ER. BCK estrogen induction is dependent on the DNA-binding domain and transactivation domain TAF2 of the ER. However, direct DNA binding is probably not required. Taken together, these results suggest a novel mechanism for ER-mediated gene activation. This mechanism is consensus ERE independent and cell type specific and requires interactions between the ER and molecules capable of interacting with the BCK promoter TA-rich region.