A segment of the 5'-flanking region of the chicken cardiac myosin light-chain gene extending from nucleotide -64 to the RNA start site is sufficient to allow muscle-specific transcription. In this paper, we characterize, by mutational analysis, sequence elements which are essential for the promoter activity. Furthermore, we present evidence for a negative-acting element which is possibly involved in conferring the muscle specificity. Nuclear proteins specifically bind to the DNA elements, as demonstrated by gel mobility shift assays and DNase I protection footprinting. The significance of the DNA-protein interactions for the function of the promoter in vivo is demonstrated by competition experiments in which protein-binding oligonucleotides were microinjected into nuclei of myotubes, where they successfully competed for the protein factors which are required to trans activate the MLC2-A promoter. The ability to bind nuclear proteins involves two closely spaced AT-rich sequence elements, one of which constitutes the TATA box. The binding properties correlate well with the capacity to activate transcription in vivo, since mutations in this region of the promoter concomitantly lead to loss of binding and transcriptional activity.