We have exploited the Escherichia coli lac operator/repressor system as a means to regulate the expression of a mammalian tRNA gene in vivo and in vitro. An oligonucleotide containing a lac operator (lacO) site was cloned immediately upstream of a human serine amber suppressor (Su+) tRNA gene. Insertion of a single lac repressor binding site at position -1 or -32 relative to the coding region had no effect on the amount of functional tRNA made in vivo, as measured by suppression of a nonsense mutation in the E. coli chloramphenicol acetyltransferase gene following cotransfection of mammalian cells. Inclusion of a plasmid expressing the lac repressor in the transfections resulted in 75 to 98% inhibition of suppression activity of lac operator-linked tRNA genes but had no effect on expression of the wild-type gene. Inhibition could be quantitatively relieved with the allosteric inducer isopropylthio-beta-D-galactoside (IPTG). Similarly, transcription in vitro of lac operator-linked tRNA genes in HeLa cell extracts was repressed in the presence of lac repressor, and this inhibition was reversible with IPTG. These results demonstrate that the bacterial lac operator/repressor system can be used to reversibly control the expression of mammalian genes that are transcribed by RNA polymerase III.