The ferritin H-chain gene promoter regulation was analyzed in heme-treated Friend leukemia cells (FLCs) and during monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation. In the majority of cell lines studied, the regulation of ferritin expression was exerted mostly at the translational level. However, in differentiating erythroid cells, which must incorporate high levels of iron to sustain hemoglobin synthesis, and in macrophages, which are involved in iron storage, transcriptional regulation seemed to be a relevant mechanism. We show here that the minimum region of the ferritin H-gene promoter that is able to confer transcriptional regulation by heme in FLCs to a reporter gene is 77 nucleotides upstream of the TATA box. This cis element binds a protein complex referred to as HRF (heme-responsive factor), which is greatly enhanced both in heme-treated FLCs and during monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation. The CCAAT element present in reverse orientation in this promoter region of the ferritin H-chain gene is necessary for binding and for gene activity, since a single point mutation is able to abolish the binding of HRF and the transcriptional activity in transfected cells. By competition experiments and supershift assays, we identified the induced HRF as containing at least the ubiquitous transcription factor NF-Y. NF-Y is formed by three subunits, A, B, and C, all of which are necessary for DNA binding. Cotransfection with a transdominant negative mutant of the NF-YA subunit abolishes the transcriptional activation by heme, indicating that NF-Y plays an essential role in this activation. We have also observed a differential expression of the NF-YA subunit in heme-treated and control FLCs and during monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation.