In liver, insulin stimulates the transcription of the gene encoding the cytosolic form of malic enzyme (ME) and modulates protein binding to two putative insulin response sequences (IRSs) in the ME promoter. One of these IRSs resembles that identified in the phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK) gene, whereas the other resembles that defined in the glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH) gene. To assess the functional significance of these changes in protein binding, a series of truncated ME-chloramphenicol acetyl-transferase (CAT) fusion genes were transiently transfected into rat H4IIE hepatoma cells. Deletion of the PEPCK-like IRS motif had no effect on the stimulation of CAT expression by insulin. Instead, the stimulatory effect of insulin was mediated through an AP-1 motif and an Egr-1 binding site that overlaps the GAPDH-like IRS motif. Both the ME AP-1 motif and the AP-1 motif identified in the collagenase-1 gene promoter were able to confer a stimulatory effect of insulin on the expression of a heterologous fusion gene, but surprisingly only the latter was able to confer a stimulatory effect of phorbol esters. Instead, the data suggest that AP-1 binds the ME AP-1 motif in an activated state such that phorbol ester treatment has no additional effect. The collagenase and ME AP-1 motifs were both shown to bind mainly Jun D and Fra-2, with similar affinities. However, the results of a proteolytic clipping bandshift assay suggest that these proteins bind the collagenase and ME AP-1 motifs in distinct conformations, which potentially explain the differences in phorbol ester signaling through these elements.