Lymph node T cells of MRL-1pr/1pr mice are characterized by the production of very large amounts of c-myb mRNA. To study the control of c-myb expression, a search was made for sites on the 5' c-myb gene which could bind regulatory proteins. DNase I digestion of nuclear chromatin uncovered four DNase I hypersensitive sites in the first intron of the c-myb gene, and a single site approximately 300 bp 5' to the initiation codon. Lambda exonuclease digestion of a 5'-myb fragment in the presence of nuclear extracts from either MRL-1pr/1pr PLN or EL-4 thymoma revealed stop sites approximately 300 bp 5' (-271 to -322) to the ATG initiation codon. DNase I footprint analysis demonstrated a guanine-cytosine enriched region of potential binding sites (-274 to -319) in the region of the stop sites and a fifth potential binding site closer to the initiation codon (-163 to -168). Specific gel shift bands were detected by a 5'-myb fragment (-346 to -155) with extracts from a number of different lymphoid cell lines and the appropriate specific and non-specific competitor DNA. The DNA giving rise to these gel shift bands encompassed the region defined by the stop site and footprinting studies. To determine whether or not the protein binding to the 5' c-myb gene at -274 to -319 was associated with increased c-myb mRNA, we studied nuclear extracts of several cell lines and compared the amount of binding to the amount of c-myb mRNA found on Northern analyses. Among the cell lines, there was a correlation between c-myb expression and the amount of the 5'-myb DNA binding protein. In addition, MRL-1pr/1pr lymph node cells had high c-myb expression and large amounts of the 5'-myb binding protein. This result suggests that the binding may play some role in the c-myb expression. Moreover, the most immature cell lines had the greatest amount of the binding factor, suggesting that its regulatory effect on c-myb expression might be important in early differentiation events.