As part of its trophic action to maintain the steroidogenic capacity of adrenocortical cells, corticotropin (ACTH) increases the transcription of the cytochrome P-450 steroid hydroxylase genes, including the gene encoding steroid 21-hydroxylase (21-OHase). We previously identified several promoter elements that regulate 21-OHase gene expression in mouse Y1 adrenocortical tumor cells. One of these elements, located at nucleotide -65, closely resembles the recognition sequence of the orphan nuclear receptor NGFI-B, suggesting that NGFI-B regulates this essential steroidogenic enzyme. To explore this possibility, we first used in situ hybridization to demonstrate high levels of NGFI-B transcripts in the adrenal cortex of the adult rat. In cultured mouse Y1 adrenocortical cells, treatment with ACTH, the major regulator of 21-OHase transcription, rapidly increased NGFI-B expression. Gel mobility shift and DNase I footprinting experiments showed that recombinantly expressed NGFI-B interacts specifically with the 21-OHase -65 element and identified one complex formed by Y1 extracts and the 21-OHase -65 element that contains NGFI-B. Expression of NGFI-B significantly augmented the activity of the intact 21-OHase promoter, while mutations of the -65 element that abolish NGFI-B binding markedly diminished NGFI-B-mediated transcriptional activation. Specific mutations of NGFI-B shown previously to impair either DNA binding or transcriptional activation diminished the effect of NGFI-B coexpression on 21-OHase expression. Finally, an oligonucleotide containing the NGFI-B response element conferred ACTH response to a core promoter from the prolactin gene, showing that this element is sufficient for ACTH induction. Collectively, these results identify a cellular promoter element that is regulated by NGFI-B and implicate NGFI-B in the transcriptional induction of 21-OHase by ACTH.