Overexpression of adenosine deaminase (ADA) in red blood cells is characterized by a marked, tissue-specific increase in levels of structurally normal ADA mRNA and enzymatic activity in the erythrocytes of affected individuals, leading to adenosine triphosphate (ATP) depletion and hemolytic anemia. This autosomal dominant trait is linked to the ADA gene. To investigate the molecular mechanism responsible for this disorder, we examined relative reporter gene activity using constructs containing 10.6 kb of 5′ flanking sequence and 12.3 kb of the first intron of the ADA gene from the normal and mutant alleles. No differences in chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) activity were found in transient transfection experiments using erythroleukemia cell lines. Transgenic mice containing the ADA constructs expressed CAT in the appropriate tissue-specific fashion, with 10(2)- to 10(4)-fold higher activity in the thymus. However, CAT activities in erythrocytes and bone marrow of mice containing high transgene copy numbers did not differ between the normal and mutant alleles. These results indicate that the mutation responsible for ADA overexpression is unlikely to reside in the 5′ and promoter regions or in the regulatory regions of the first intron. It is possible that the erythroid-specific overexpression of ADA results from a mutation at some distance from the gene or requires an interaction of a proximal mutation with more distal DNA elements.