Smooth muscle cells (SMC) express a battery of lineage-restricted genes whose encoded proteins impart the unique contractile phenotype that characterizes this muscle type. While the encoded function of many SMC-restricted genes has been extensively analyzed, less is known about their position within the genome and the regulatory factors governing their transcription. In this report, we define the gene structure, 5' promoter analysis, and chromosomal mapping of the rat smooth muscle calponin (CnnI) gene. The rat CnnI gene is comprised of seven exons spanning approximately 8 kb of genomic sequence. The intron-exon boundaries of the rat CnnI gene match precisely those in human and mouse. Primer extension and RNase protection assays indicate two major transcription start positions (tsp). Comparative sequence analysis of the 5' promoter region reveals several conserved cis regulatory elements, including a TA-rich element within 30 nt of the tsp that could be a recognition site for TATA-binding protein and two CCAAT boxes. Transient and stable transfection studies support the hypothesis that distal regulatory elements confer SMC-restricted expression of CnnI. Finally, using an F2 intercross, we have mapped the rat CnnI gene to the telomeric end of Chromosome (Chr) 8. These studies provide additional information relating to the control of CnnI gene expression and provide a platform to begin assessing the potential linkage of CnnI to spontaneous and experimental disease phenotypes in rats.