Binding sites for transcription factor Sp1have been implicated in the transcriptional regulation of several genes by hormones or vitamins, and here we show that a GC-rich element contributes to the retinoic acid response of the interleukin 1β promoter. To explain such observations, it has been proposed that nuclear receptors can interact with Sp1 bound to GC-rich DNA. However, evidence supporting this model has remained indirect. So far, nuclear receptors have not been detected in a complex with Sp1 and GC-rich DNA, and the expected ternary complexes in non-denaturing gels were not seen. In search for these missing links we found that nuclear receptors [retinoic acid receptor (RAR), thyroid hormone receptor (TR), vitamin D 3 receptor, peroxisome-proliferator-activated receptor and retinoic X receptor] induce an electrophoretic mobility increase of Sp1ŐGC-rich DNA complexes. Concomitantly, binding of Sp1 to the GC-box is enhanced. It is proposed that nuclear receptors may partially replace Sp1 in homo-oligomers at the GC-box. RARs and Sp1 can also combine into a complex with a retinoic acid-response element. The presence of RAR and Sp1 in complexes with either cognate site was revealed in supershift experiments. The C-terminus of Sp1 interacts with nuclear receptors. Both the ligand- and DNA-binding domains of the receptor are important for complex formation with Sp1 and GC-rich DNA. In spite of similar capacity to form ternary complexes, RAR but not TR up-regulated an Sp1-driven reporter in a ligand-dependent way. Thus additional factors limit the transcriptional response mediated by nuclear receptors and Sp1.