The regulation of trans-activating activities of two human hepatocellular carcinoma cell (HCC) lines, HEP-G2 and SK-HEP-1, was investigated. These cells were transfected with the wild-type and a nested series of its 5'-deletion mutants of the long terminal (LTR) repeat derived from HIV-1, which were ligated with the chloramphenicol acetyl transferase gene. These two HCC cell lines exhibited different biological characteristics, reflecting their status of differentiation. Both cell lines showed moderate degrees of constitutive (basal) trans-activating activities. While HEP-G2 cells, which are well differentiated, showed marked degrees of enhancement of trans-activation after treatment with 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate, SK-HEP-1 cells, which are poorly differentiated, showed only moderate or low degrees of enhancement. These two cell lines up-regulated their trans-activating activities in response to the deletion of some regions of positive and negative regulatory elements, suggesting that they produce trans-acting factors that are quantitatively different from each other, and often employ different sets of positive and negative regulatory elements for trans-activation.