Sequences within the first intron of the alpha 1(I) collagen gene have been implicated in the regulation of expression of alpha 1(I) collagen-reporter gene constructs in cultured cells. However, the physiological significance of these intronic elements has not been established. We have used in situ hybridization to examine whether a cell-specific pattern of expression of human alpha 1(I) collagen-human growth hormone minigenes exists in transgenic mice. Our results indicate that transgenes which contained 2,300 bp of promoter/5' flanking sequence and an intact first intron were well expressed by fibroblasts in dermis and fascia, whereas transgenes lacking the intronic sequence, +292 to +1440, were not expressed in dermis and poorly expressed in fascia. Analysis of transgene expression in cultured fibroblasts obtained from dermal explants of transgenic animals confirmed the requirement for these intronic sequences in the regulation of the alpha 1(I) collagen gene. In contrast, transgenes with or without the intronic deletion were expressed equally well in tendon and bone, in a manner comparable to the endogenous mouse alpha 1(I) collagen gene, and expression of neither transgene was detected in skeletal muscle or perichondrium. These data support a model in which cis-acting elements in the first intron, and their cognate DNA-binding proteins, mediate transcription of the alpha 1(I) collagen gene in some cells, such as dermal fibroblasts, but not in tendon cells or osteoblasts. Moreover, regions of the gene not included in the sequence, -2300 to +1440, appear to be required for transcription in tissues such as skeletal muscle and perichondrium.