Carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I is the flux-determining enzyme of the ornithine cycle, and neutralizes toxic ammonia by converting it to urea. An 80 bp glucocorticoid response unit located 6.3 kb upstream of the transcription start site mediates hormone responsiveness and liver-specific expression of carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I. The glucocorticoid response unit consists of response elements for the glucocorticoid receptor, forkhead box A, CCAAT/enhancer-binding protein, and an unidentified protein. With only four transcription factor response elements, the carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I glucocorticoid response unit is a relatively simple unit. The relationship between carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I expression and in vivo occupancy of the response elements was examined by comparing a carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I-expressing hepatoma cell line with a carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I-negative fibroblast cell line. DNaseI hypersensitivity assays revealed an open chromatin configuration of the carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I enhancer in hepatoma cells only. In vivo footprinting assays showed that the accessory transcription factors of the glucocorticoid response unit bound to their response elements in carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I-positive cells, irrespective of whether carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I expression was induced with hormones. In contrast, the binding of glucocorticoid receptor to the carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I glucocorticoid response unit was dependent on treatment of the cells with glucocorticoids. Only forkhead box A was exclusively present in hepatoma cells, and therefore appears to be an important determinant of the observed tissue specificity of carbamoylphosphate synthetase-I expression. As the glucocorticoid receptor is the only DNA-binding protein specifically recruited to the glucocorticoid response unit upon stimulation by glucocorticoids, it is likely to be directly responsible for the transcriptional activation mediated by the glucocorticoid response unit.