The t(9;22) Philadelphia chromosome translocation fuses 5' regulatory and coding sequences of the BCR gene to the c-ABL proto-oncogene. This results in the formation of hybrid BCR-ABL mRNAs and proteins. The shift in ABL transcriptional control to the BCR promoter may play a role in cellular transformation mediated by this rearrangement. We have functionally localized the BCR promoter to a region 1 kb 5' of BCR exon 1 coding sequences by using a chloramphenicol acetyltransferase reporter gene assay. Nucleotide sequence analysis of this region revealed many consensus binding sequences for transcription factor SP1 as well as two potential CCAAT box binding factor sites and one putative helix-loop-helix transcription factor binding site. No TATA-like or "initiator" element sequences were found. Because of low steady-state levels of BCR mRNA and the high GC content (78%) of the promoter region, definitive mapping of transcription start sites required artificial amplification of BCR promoter-directed transcripts. Overexpression from the BCR promoter in a COS cell system was effective in demonstrating multiple transcription initiation sites. In order to assess the effects of chromosomal translocation on the transcriptional control of the BCR gene, we determined S1 nuclease protection patterns of poly(A)+ RNA from tumor cell lines. No differences were observed in the locations and levels of BCR transcription initiation sites between those lines that harbored the t(9;22) translocation and those that did not. This demonstrates that BCR promoter function remains intact in spite of genomic rearrangement. The BCR promoter is structurally similar to the ABL promoters. Together, this suggests that the structural fusion of BCR-ABL and not its transcriptional deregulation is primarily responsible for the transforming effect of the t(9;22) translocation.