Different serotypes and evolutionary variants of human adenoviruses exhibit distinctive patterns of positive and negative autoregulation of the viral E1A gene. An autoregulatory E1A promoter mutation of the adenovirus type 3 (Ad3) E1A gene renders Ad3hr15 incapable of growth in normally permissive cells. The promoter mutation is complemented in trans by E1A products of the heterologous helper adenovirus type 5 (Ad5). Second-site revertants of Ad3hr15 restore viability with high levels of E1A gene expression. The revertant E1A genotypes retain the mutant E1A promoter and have small in-frame deletions in the nonconserved region between the repression- and activation-associated conserved domains CR2 and CR3. Plasmid expression vectors were constructed as 12S and 13S cDNA forms of revertant E1A genes. These were used in cotransfection experiments with a reporter gene plasmid under transcriptional control of the mutant Ad3hr15 E1A promoter. The repression of the Ad3hr15 E1A promoter by helper Ad5 or revertant 12S E1A cDNA was consistently greater than that effected wild-type Ad3 12S cDNAs expression. Significantly greater levels of positive transactivation were observed in cotransfections with 13S cDNAs of Ad5 or with the 13S E1A cDNA of Ad3hr15 revertants, compared to the transactivation observed with the mutant-encoded wild-type Ad3 13S E1A cDNA. The Ad5 helper and dI-revertant phenotype of Ad3hr15 appear to be related to transactivation activities of coexpressed E1A genes. The nonconserved region which separates the conserved coding regions CR2 and CR3 of the type 3 E1A gene acts to attenuate E1A-mediated repression and transactivation of transcription.