The expression of secretory component (SC), the epithelial receptor for poly-immunoglobulins, is regulated in a highly tissue-specific manner. In several tissues, e.g. lacrimal gland and prostate, SC synthesis is enhanced by androgens at the transcriptional level. In this study, we describe the presence of an androgen response unit, located 3.3 kb upstream of the sc transcription initiation site and containing several 5'-TGTTCT-3'-like motifs. Although each of these elements is implicated in the enhancer function, one element, the ARE1.2 motif, is found to be the main interaction site for the androgen receptor as demonstrated in in vitro binding assays as well as in transient transfection assays. A high-affinity binding site for nuclear factor I, adjacent to this ARE, is also involved in the correct functioning of the sc upstream enhancer. The ARE1.2 motif consists of an imperfect direct repeat of two core binding elements with a three-nucleotide spacer and therefore constitutes a nonconventional ARE. We demonstrate that this element displays selectivity for the androgen receptor as opposed to glucocorticoid receptor both in in vitro binding assays and in transfection experiments. Mutational analysis suggests that the direct nature of the half-site repeat is responsible for this selectivity. We have thus determined a complex and androgen-specific response unit in the far upstream region of the human SC gene, which we believe to be involved in its androgen responsiveness in epithelial cells of different organs such as prostate and lacrimal gland. We were also able to demonstrate that the primary sequence of a single nonconventional ARE motif within the enhancer is responsible for its androgen specificity.