Five novel murine plasma cell (PC) tumors with chromosome translocations 350-500 bp 5' of the first c-myc exon are described. The t(12;15)s of TEPC 1194, ABPC 33 and TEPC 1165 position the intact c-myc locus 5' of the Cu, C gamma 2a and C alpha IgCH genes respectively. In ABPC 17, the IgH enhancer element and adjacent switch (Su) sequences were found 5' of the first c-myc exon while this enhancer is associated with the reciprocal products of the TEPC 1194, ABPC 33 and TEPC 1033 translocations. Quantitative S1 nuclease analyses demonstrate that the ratios of transcription from the two c-myc promoters (P1 and P2) are increased 4-to 7-fold in these five tumors. With the exception of TEPC 1165, (which contains a small deletion in exon 1), such increases in P1:P2 ratios appear to be manifested by a reduction in P2 usage in comparison to other tumors without such promoter shifts. A survey of 27 additional PC and non-PC B lymphoid tumors and cell lines revealed that myc promoter shifts of this magnitude are unique to PC tumors with 5'-proximal translocations. We propose that (i) these clustered breakpoints identify a normal c-myc regulatory element located at least 350 bp 5' of c-myc exon 1; (ii) the loss or disruption of this cis-acting upstream element and the linkage of c-myc to the IgCH locus would result in abnormal expression of this oncogene in these as well as most other PC tumors.