The cytotoxic efficacy of antitumor drugs targeted at DNA topoisomerase II (topo II) in many cases varies in direct proportion to cellular topo II content. To investigate the transcriptional control of the predominant alpha form of topo II, the 5' flanking region of the human topo II alpha gene (positions -562 to +90) was subcloned into a firefly luciferase reporter plasmid and transiently transfected into HL-60 human leukemia cells, a line capable of monocytic differentiation after treatment with various agents. Early in phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate (30 nM)-induced differentiation (18-24 hr after treatment), an unexpected 3-5-fold activation of topo II alpha gene promoter activity was observed. Activation was observed in HL-60 cells and U-937 cells, but not in HeLa human cervical carcinoma cells. Sodium butyrate (NaB) (0.4 mM) also led to activation (4-17-fold) of the topo II alpha promoter in HL-60 and U-937 cells. Promoter sequences between position -90 and position +90 mediated the inducing effects of NaB. This NaB-dependent promoter-reporter induction was partly mirrored by a transient approximately 2-fold increase in endogenous topo II alpha enzyme. The stimulus for promoter activation could be partly attributed to a 2-fold increase in DNA synthesis at 16 hr for NaB, but not phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate. Regardless of the primary stimulus for topo II alpha promoter trans-activation, it could be bypassed by treatment of HL-60 cells with NaB for 48 hr before transfection, revealing the expected 60-70% suppression of topo II alpha promoter activity. Further study of topo II alpha promoter down-regulation later in monocytic differentiation may serve as a model for elucidating the transcriptional mechanisms that may also be exploited by tumor cells expressing intrinsic or acquired resistance to topo II-directed drugs.