To identify regions involved in tissue specific regulation of transcription of the alpha1(VI) collagen chain, transgenic mice were generated carrying various portions of the gene's 5'-flanking sequence fused to the E. coli beta-galactosidase gene. Analysis of the transgene expression pattern by X-gal staining of embryos revealed that: (a) The proximal 0.6 kb of promoter sequence activated transcription in mesenchymal cells at sites of insertion of superficial muscular aponeurosis into the skin; tendons were also faintly positive. (b) The region between -4.0 and -5.4 kb from the transcription start site was required for activation of the transgene in nerves. It also drove expression in joints, in intervertebral disks, and in subepidermal and vibrissae mesenchyme. (c) The fragment comprised within -6.2 and -7.5 kb was necessary for high level transcription in skeletal muscle and meninges. Positive cells in muscle were mostly mononuclear and probably included connective tissue elements, although staining of myoblasts was not ruled out. This fragment also activated expression in joints, in intervertebral disks, and in subepidermal and vibrissae mesenchyme. (d) beta-Galactosidase staining in vibrissae induced by the sequences -4.0 to -5.4 and -6.2 to -7.5 was not coincident: with the latter sequence labeled nuclei were found mainly in the ventral and posterior quadrant, and, histologically, in the outer layers of mesenchyme surrounding and between the follicles, whereas with the former the remaining quadrants were positive and expressing cells were mostly in the inner layers of the dermal sheath. (e) Other tissues, notably lung, adrenal gland, digestive tract, which produce high amounts of collagen type VI, did not stain for beta-galactosidase. (f) Central nervous system and retina, in which the endogenous gene is inactive, expressed the lacZ transgene in most lines. The data suggest that transcription of alpha1(VI) in different tissues is regulated by distinct sequence elements in a modular arrangement, a mechanism which confers high flexibility in the temporal and spatial pattern of expression during development.

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