Regulation of plant gene transcription by light is mediated by multipartite cis-regulatory units. Previous attempts to identify structural features that are common to all light-responsive elements (LREs) have been unsuccessful. To address the question of what is needed to confer photoresponsiveness to a promoter, the upstream sequences from more than 110 light-regulated plant genes were analyzed by a new, phylogenetic-structural method. As a result, 30 distinct conserved DNA module arrays (CMAs) associated with light-responsive promoter regions were identified. Several of these CMAs have remained invariant throughout the evolutionary radiation of angiosperms and are conserved between homologous genes as well as between members of different gene families. The identified CMAs share a gene superfamily-specific core that correlates with the particular phytochrome- dependent transduction pathway that controls their expression, i.e. ACCTA(A/C)C(A/C) for the cGMP-dependent phenylpropanoid metabolism- associated genes, and GATA(A/T)GR for the Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent photosynthesis-associated nuclear genes. In addition to suggesting a general model for the functional and structural organization of LREs, the data obtained in this study indicate that angiosperm LREs probably evolved from complex cis-acting elements involved in regulatory processes other than photoregulation in gymnosperms.