The vitamin D receptor (VDR) is known to mediate the pleiotropic biological actions of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 through its ability to modulate the expression of target genes. The regulation of this ligand- activated cellular transcription factor is reported to occur at both transcriptional and post-translational levels. To begin to address the molecular basis by which the VDR gene is regulated transcriptionally, we report here an initial characterization of the human VDR gene and its promoter. We isolated several overlapping λ-phage and cosmid clones that cover more than 100 kb of human DNA and contained the entire VDR gene. The gene is comprised of 11 exons that, together with intervening introns, span approximately 75 kb. The non-coding 5'-end of the gene includes exons 1A, 1B, and 1C. Eight additional exons (exons 2-9) encode the structural portion of the VDR gene product. While primer extension and S1 nuclease-mapping studies reveal several common transcriptional start sites, three unique mRNA species are produced as a result of the differential splicing of exons 1B and 1C. The DNA sequence lying upstream of exon 1A is GC rich and does not contain an apparent TATA box. Several potential binding sites for the transcription factor SP1 and other activators are evident. Fusion of DNA fragments containing putative promoter sequences upstream of the luciferase structural gene followed by transient transfection of these plasmids into several mammalian cell lines resulted in significant reporter activity. Due to the size and complexity of the 5'-end of the VDR gene, we examined the activity of a DNA fragment surrounding exon 1C. An intron fragment 3' of exon 1C conferred retinoic acid responsivity when fused to a reporter gene plasmid, suggesting a molecular mechanism for the previously observed ability of retinoic acid to induce the VDR. The recovery of the gene for the human VDR will enable further studies on the transcriptional regulation of this gene.