The 72-kDa gelatinase A (MMP-2) is a central mediator of the response of the intrinsic glomerular mesangial cell to inflammatory stimuli and is regulated in a unique, cell-specific manner. We isolated a 6-kilobase pair genomic fragment of the rat MMP-2 gene and sequenced and characterized 1686-base pair of the 5'-flanking region. Using a series of 5' deletion constructs of the proximal 5'-flanking region, a strong MMP-2 enhancer element was identified. Gel shift and mutational analyses suggest tha the enhancer region represents the binding site for complex transcription factor demonstrating separable DNA-binding and transcriptional activating domains. The presence and activity of the enhancer element was evaluated in several cell types with varying capabilities to synthesize MMP-2 including mesangial cells, glomerular epithelial cells, and the monocytic U937 cell. Although binding activity was present in all cell types studied, enhancer activity was demonstrated only in mesangial and glomerular epithelial cells. Additional transcriptional control resided in a tissue-specific promoter, which supported transcription only in mesangial cells. These results indicate that the final control of mesangial cell-specific synthesis of MMP-2 derives from an interaction between the strong enhancer element and the tissue-specific MMP-2 promoter.