The expressed variant cell surface glycoprotein (VSG) gene of Trypanosoma brucei is located at the 3' end of a large, telomeric, polycistronic transcription unit or expression site. We show that the region 45 kb upstream of the VSG gene, in the expression site on a 1.5-Mb chromosome, contains at least two promoters that are arranged in tandem, directing the transcription of the expression site. DNA rearrangement events occur specifically, at inactivation of the expression site, and these events delete the most upstream transcribed region and replace it with a large array of simple-sequence DNA, leaving the downstream promoter intact. Because of the placement of simple-sequence DNA, the remaining downstream promoter now becomes structurally identical to previously described VSG promoters. The downstream promoter is repetitive in the genome, since it is present at several different expression sites. Restriction fragment length polymorphism mapping allows grouping of the expression sites into two families, those with and those without an upstream transcription unit, and the DNA rearrangement events convert the expression sites from one type to the other. Deletion of the upstream transcription unit also leads to the loss of several steady-state RNAs. The findings may indicate a role for promoter-associated DNA rearrangement events, and/or interactions between tandemly arranged promoters, in expression site transcriptional control.