Nuclear extracts from embryos of Xenopus laevis were shown to contain a protein activity, KTF-1, which binds in vitro to the promoter of the embryonic, epidermis-specific keratin gene, XK81A1. Mobility shift assays, methylation interference and footprinting analysis were used to show that the KTF-1 binding site contains an imperfect, palindromic sequence, ACCCTGAGGCT. This sequence occurs once in the XK81A1 promoter, 152-162 base pairs upstream of the transcription start site. A construct of the keratin gene in which this sequence was altered so that it no longer binds KTF-1 in vitro showed severely reduced transcription levels upon injection into Xenopus embryos, but retained epidermal specificity. Addition of KTF-1 binding sites also enhanced epidermal and non-epidermal activity of a heterologous promoter, Xenopus beta-globin, in embryos. These results suggest that KTF-1 is a general activator of embryonic keratin transcription, which acts in concert with other factors to produce high levels of epidermis-specific expression.