The E6 promoters of all genital human papillomaviruses have a characteristic alignment of transcription factor binding sites. Activation of the basic transcription complex at the TATA box depends upon a sequence- aberrant Sp1 site. Repression of E6 promoters is achieved by two binding sites for the viral E2 protein positioned between the Sp1 site and the TATA box. We have purified the human papillomavirus type 16 E2 protein after expression in Escherichia coli and studied its binding and repression properties with oligonucleotides representing the homologous promoter sequences. A K(d) value of 3 x 10-10 M indicated binding properties expected for a native protein. We found low cooperativity in the binding of two E2 dimers to flanking sites, both when these sites were separated by 3 nucleotides, as in the natural promoter, and when they were further apart. E2 protein, bound close to the distal Sp1 site, displaced the Sp1 factor even when the aberrant sequence was replaced by a typical Sp1 core recognition site. The high affinity of E2 protein for its binding site even led to Sp1 displacement at concentrations of E2 protein nearly 2 orders of magnitude lower than those of Sp1. Functional analyses of mutated E6 promoter sequences showed repression by this distal E2 binding site in the complete absence of binding to the proximal E2 binding site. From our findings and observations published by others, we conclude that each of the E2 binding sites in the E6 promoter of genital human papillomaviruses plays a separate role by displacing the transcription factors Sp1 and TFIID.