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Selective transcription of the insulin gene in pancreatic beta cells is regulated by its enhancer, located between nucleotides -340 and -91 relative to the transcription start site. One of the principal control elements within the enhancer is found between nucleotides -100 and -91 (GCCATCTGCT, referred to as the insulin control element [ICE]) and is regulated by both positive- and negative-acting transcription factors in the helix-loop-helix (HLH) family. It was previously shown that the c-jun proto-oncogene can repress insulin gene transcription. We have found that c-jun inhibits ICE-stimulated transcription. Inhibition of ICE-directed transcription is mediated by sequences within the carboxy-terminal region of the protein. These c-jun sequences span an activation domain and the basic leucine zipper DNA binding-dimerization region of the protein. Both regions of c-jun are conserved within the other members of the jun family: junB and junD. These proteins also suppress ICE-mediated transcription. The jun proteins do not appear to inhibit insulin gene transcription by binding directly to the ICE. c-jun and junB also block the trans-activation potential of two skeletal muscle-specific HLH proteins, MyoD and myogenin. These results suggests that the jun proteins may be common transcription control factors used in skeletal muscle and pancreatic beta cells to regulate HLH-mediated activity. We discuss the possible significance of these observations to insulin gene transcription in pancreatic beta cells.