Transcription of human T-cell receptor (TCR) alpha genes is regulated by a T-cell-specific transcriptional enhancer that is located 4.5 kilobases 3' of the C alpha gene segment. Previous studies have demonstrated that this enhancer contains at least five nuclear protein-binding sites called T alpha 1 to T alpha 5. In the studies described in this report, we have determined the molecular requirements for human TCR alpha enhancer function. In vitro mutagenesis and deletion analyses demonstrated that full enhancer activity is retained in a 116-base-pair fragment containing the T alpha 1 and T alpha 2 nuclear protein-binding sites and that both of these sites are required for full enhancer function. Functional enhancer activity requires that the T alpha 1 and T alpha 2 binding sites be separated by more than 15 and fewer than 85 base pairs. However, the sequence of this spacer region and the relative phase of the two binding sites on the DNA helix do not affect enhancer function. Deletion and mutation analyses demonstrated that the T alpha 3 and T alpha 4 nuclear protein-binding sites are not necessary or sufficient for TCR alpha enhancer activity. However, a fragment containing these two sites was able to compensate for T alpha 1 and T alpha 2 mutations that otherwise abolished enhancer activity. Electrophoretic mobility shift analyses of the TCR alpha enhancer binding proteins revealed that the T alpha 1, T alpha 3, and T alpha 4 binding proteins are expressed in a variety of T-cell and non-T-cell tumor cell lines. In contrast, one of the two T alpha 2 binding activities was detected only in T-cell nuclear extracts. The activity of the TCR alpha enhancer does not appear to be regulated solely at the level of DNA methylation on that the enhancer sequences were found to be identically hypomethylated in B and T cells as compared with fibroblasts. Taken together, these results suggest that TCR alpha enhancer activity is regulated by the interaction of multiple T-cell-specific and ubiquitous nuclear proteins with partially redundant cis-acting enhancer elements that are hypomethylated in cells of the lymphoid lineage.