The breast and ovarian specific tumor suppressor protein, BRCA1, has been shown to be a transcription factor because its carboxyl terminus, when fused to the GAL4 DNA binding domain, activates gene expression in cells. In this study, purified GAL4-BRCA1 protein functions in transcriptional activation assays using a minimal in vitro system. When compared with a standard activator, GAL4-VP16, the levels of activation produced by the BRCA1 fusion protein were stronger when in the presence of certain coactivators. The transcriptional activation by BRCA1 is maximal when in the presence of the PC4 (positive component 4) coactivator but not HMG2 (high mobility group protein 2) and when the template is negatively supercoiled. By contrast, transcriptional activation by VP16 was highest in the presence of HMG2 as well as PC4 and when DNA templates had linear topology. Activation by VP16 was largely unaffected by the concentration of TFIIH, whereas activation by BRCA1 was strongly affected by TFIIH concentrations. The differing cofactor and template requirements suggest that GAL4-BRCA1 and GAL4-VP16 regulate different steps in the pathways that lead to transcriptional activation.