Expression of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is induced in cells exposed to hypoxia or ischemia. Neovascularization stimulated by VEGF occurs in several important clinical contexts, including myocardial ischemia, retinal disease, and tumor growth. Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) is a heterodimeric basic helix-loop-helix protein that activates transcription of the human erythropoietin gene in hypoxic cells. Here we demonstrate the involvement of HIF-1 in the activation of VEGF transcription. VEGF 5'-flanking sequences mediated transcriptional activation of reporter gene expression in hypoxic Hep3B cells. A 47-bp sequence located 985 to 939 bp 5' to the VEGF transcription initiation site mediated hypoxia-inducible reporter gene expression directed by a simian virus 40 promoter element that was otherwise minimally responsive to hypoxia. When reporters containing VEGF sequences, in the context of the native VEGF or heterologous simian virus 40 promoter, were cotransfected with expression vectors encoding HIF-1alpha and HIF-1beta (ARNT [aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator]), reporter gene transcription was much greater in both hypoxic and nonhypoxic cells than in cells transfected with the reporter alone. A HIF-1 binding site was demonstrated in the 47-bp hypoxia response element, and a 3-bp substitution eliminated the ability of the element to bind HIF-1 and to activate transcription in response to hypoxia and/or recombinant HIF-1. Cotransfection of cells with an expression vector encoding a dominant negative form of HIF-1alpha inhibited the activation of reporter transcription in hypoxic cells in a dose-dependent manner. VEGF mRNA was not induced by hypoxia in mutant cells that do not express the HIF-1beta (ARNT) subunit. These findings implicate HIF-1 in the activation of VEGF transcription in hypoxic cells.