We have cloned the immediate-early serum-reponsive JE gene from the rat in order to study the regulation of this gene. We show that sequences of the JE promoter region confer serum-inducibility to a reporter gene. Analysis of the promoter in transient assays reveals that: i) the -141/-88 region is required for the response to the phorbol ester TPA, ii) the -70/-38 region is essential for basal activity. This latter region harbors the sequence TGACTCC, which resembles the consensus site for AP-1 binding, TGACTCA. DNA-protein binding assays indicate that the JE AP-1 site and the consensus AP-1 site have an overlapping but not identical binding spectrum for AP-1 proteins. Our data suggest that the inability of some AP-1 sites to respond to TPA is caused by subtle differences in affinity for AP-1 proteins.