The CRX (cone-rod homeobox) gene is specifically expressed in developing and mature photoreceptors and encodes an otd/Otx-like paired homeodomain protein. Mutant alleles of the CRX gene have recently been associated with autosomal dominant cone-rod dystrophy (CORD) as well as dominant Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA). Since LCA is more commonly inherited in an autosomal recessive manner, we examined a cohort of recessive LCA patients for CRX mutations. A homozygous substitution of arginine (R) at codon 90 by tryptophan (W) was identified in the CRX homeodomain of one of the probands who was nearly blind from birth. A group of 48 control individuals and 190 previously characterized CORD probands did not reveal this sequence change. The mutant CRX(R90W) homeodomain demonstrated decreased binding to the previously identified cis sequence elements in the rhodopsin promoter. In transient transfection experiments, the mutant protein showed significantly reduced ability to transactivate the rhodopsin promoter, as well as lower synergistic activation with the bZIP transcription factor NRL. Heterozygosity of the mutant CRX (R90W) allele was detected in both parents and in an older sibling. Ophthalmologic examination and electroretinography revealed a subtle abnormality of cone function in both the parents. These data suggest that the R90W mutation results in a CRX protein with reduced DNA binding and transcriptional regulatory activity and that the subsequent changes in photoreceptor gene expression lead to the very early onset severe visual impairment in LCA.