Keratins are structural proteins expressed by epithelial cells. Approximately 30 different keratin proteins have been identified, each with a specific expression pattern in different epithelial cells. The tissue-specific promoter of several keratin genes have been used to direct the expression of transgenes in animals. Keratin K12 and K3 are expressed in differentiated and stratified corneal epithelium, although the relative expression of each appears to vary between species. We targeted the mouse K12 keratin gene in order to develop a tissue-specific promoter that could be utilized to study the functions of genes of interest expressed in the corneal epithelium. Three 5' truncated fragments of the keratin K12 promoter (1.03, 0.71 and 0.25 Kb) showed higher functional and tissue-specific promoter activity in a human corneal epithelial cell line than other cell lines. The 0.25 Kb K12 promoter fragment was also active in cultured rabbit corneal epithelial cells. Thus, increased expression in corneal epithelial cells directed by fragments of the mouse K12 promoter extended across species lines. The paired box homeotic gene 6 (PAX-6), which is involved in controlling eye development, stimulated the activity of keratin K12 promoter.