JC virus is a human DNA virus that specifically infects oligodendroglial cells, resulting in a demyelinating disease (progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy) of the central nervous system of immunosuppressed patients. The host-range restriction of JC virus is controlled at the level of viral gene transcription. To analyze further the determinants of glial specificity, we cloned and sequenced the JC viral early promoter elements directly from the infected brain tissue of four patients. The promoter of each isolate contained a novel identical sequence, 5'-AGGGAGGAGC (GA box), located immediately upstream of the TATA box. This GA box is not present in the original isolate of JC virus (Mad-1 strain), which was obtained after numerous passages in tissue culture. The GA box has 80% homology with the consensus binding site for the transcription factor Sp1. Using a gel retardation assay, we found that Sp1 binds to the GA box. Alteration of bases within the sequence abolished binding of Sp1, demonstrating sequence specificity of binding. Immunohistochemical localization of Sp1 expression in human brain reveals that expression is restricted to the nuclei of oligodendroglial cells, cerebellar basket cells, and endothelial cells. The GA box is present in the promoters of the myelin basic protein and proteolipid protein genes. On the basis of these observations, we suggest that this Sp1-like binding site participates in the control of glial-specific gene expression.