The mi locus of mice encodes a member of the basic-helix-loop-helix- leucine zipper (bHLH-Zip) protein family of transcription factors (hereafter called MITF). Cultured mast cells of mi/mi genotype (mi/mi CMCs) did not normally respond to stem cell factor (SCF), a ligand for the c-kit receptor tyrosine kinase. The poor response of mi/mi CMCs to SCF was attributed to the deficient expression of c-kit both the mRNA and protein levels. The purpose of the present study is to investigate the effect of MITF on the transcription of the c-kit gene. First, we introduced cDNA encoding normal (+) MITF or mutant (mi) MITF into mi/mi CMCs using the retroviral vector. Overexpression of (+)-MITF but not mi- MITF normalized the expression of the c-kit and the poor response of mi/mi CMCs to SCF, indicating the involvement of (+)-MITF in the c-kit gene transactivation. Second, we analyzed the promoter of the c-kit gene. Three CANNTG motifs recognized by bHLH-Zip-type transcription factors were conserved between the mouse and human c-kit promoters. Among these three CANNTG motifs, only the CACCTG motif (nt -356 to - 351) was specifically bound by (+)-MITF. When the luciferase gene under the control of the c-kit promoter was contransfected into NIH/3T3 fibroblasts with cDNA encoding (+)-MITF or mi-MITF, the luciferase activity significantly increased only when (+)-MITF cDNA was cotransfected. The deletion of the promoter region containing the CACCTG motif or the mutation of the CACCTG to CTCCAG abolished the transactivation effect of (+)-MITF, indicating that (+)-MITF transactivated the c-kit gene through the CACCTG motif. When the luciferase gene under the control of the c-kit promoter was introduced into the FMA3 mastocytoma and FEC-P1 myeloid cell lines, remarkable luciferase activity was observed only in FMA3 cells. Thus, the involvement of (+)-MITF in the c-kit transactivation appeared to be specific to the mast cell lineage.