opaque-2 (o2) is a regulatory locus in maize that plays an essential role in controlling the expression of genes encoding the 22-kD zein proteins. Through DNase I footprinting and DNA binding analyses, we have identified the binding site for the O2 protein (O2) in the promoter of 22-kD zein genes. The sequence in the 22-kD zein gene promoter that is recognized by O2 is similar to the target site recognized by other "basic/leucine zipper" (bZIP) proteins in that it contains an ACGT core that is necessary for DNA binding. The site is located in the -300 region relative to the translation start and lies about 20 bp downstream of the highly conserved zein gene sequence motif known as the "prolamin box." Employing gel mobility shift assays, we used O2 antibodies and nuclear extracts from an o2 null mutant to demonstrate that the O2 protein in maize endosperm nuclei recognizes the target site in the zein gene promoter. Mobility shift assays using nuclear proteins from an o2 null mutant indicated that other endosperm proteins in addition to O2 can bind the O2 target site and that O2 may be associated with one of these proteins. We also demonstrated that in yeast cells the O2 protein can activate expression of a lacZ gene containing a multimer of the O2 target sequence as part of its promoter, thus confirming its role as a transcriptional activator. A computer-assisted search indicated that the O2 target site is not present in the promoters of zein genes other than those of the 22-kD class. These data suggest a likely explanation at the molecular level for the differential effect of o2 mutations on expression of certain members of the zein gene family.