Nerve growth factor (NGF) plays a critical role in the development and survival of neurons in the peripheral nervous system. Following treatment with NGF but not epidermal growth factor, rat pheochromocytoma (PC12) cells undergo neural differentiation. We have cloned a nervous system-specific mRNA, NGF33.1, that is rapidly and relatively selectively induced by treatment of PC12 cells with NGF and basic fibroblast growth factor in comparison with epidermal growth factor. Analysis of the nucleic acid and predicted amino acid sequences of the NGF33.1 cDNA clone suggested that this clone corresponded to the NGF-inducible mRNA called VGF (A. Levi, J. D. Eldridge, and B. M. Paterson, Science 229:393-395, 1985; R. Possenti, J. D. Eldridge, B. M. Paterson, A. Grasso, and A. Levi, EMBO J. 8:2217-2223, 1989). We have used the NGF33.1 cDNA clone to isolate and characterize the VGF gene, and in this paper we report the complete sequence of the VGF gene, including 853 bases of 5' flank. The VGF gene contains two small introns within the 5' untranslated region of the mRNA, and analysis of the 5' flank revealed TATAA and CCAAT elements, several GC boxes, and a consensus cyclic AMP response element-binding protein binding site. The VGF promoter contains sequences homologous to other NGF-inducible, neuronal promoters. We further show that VGF mRNA is induced in PC12 cells to a greater extent by depolarization and by phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate treatment than by 8-bromo-cyclic AMP treatment. By Northern (RNA) and RNase protection analysis, VGF mRNA is detectable in embryonic and postnatal central and peripheral nervous tissues but not in a number of nonneural tissues. In the cascade of events which ultimately leads to the neural differentiation of NGF-treated PC12 cells, the VGF gene encodes the most rapidly and selectively regulated, nervous-system specific mRNA yet identified.