Abstract Background Eukaryotic transcription activators normally consist of a sequence-specific DNA-binding domain (DBD) and a transcription activation domain (AD). While many sequence patterns and motifs have been defined for DBDs, ADs do not share easily recognizable motifs or structures. Results We report herein that the N-terminal domain of yeast valyl-tRNA synthetase can function as an AD when fused to a DNA-binding protein, LexA, and turn on reporter genes with distinct LexA-responsive promoters. The transcriptional activity was mainly attributed to a five-residue peptide, WYDWW, near the C-terminus of the N domain. Remarkably, the pentapeptide per se retained much of the transcriptional activity. Mutations which substituted tryptophan residues for both of the non-tryptophan residues in the pentapeptide (resulting in W5) significantly enhanced its activity (~1.8-fold), while mutations which substituted aromatic residues with alanine residues severely impaired its activity. Accordingly, a much more active peptide, pentatryptophan (W7), was produced, which elicited ~3-fold higher activity than that of the native pentapeptide and the N domain. Further study indicated that W7 mediates transcription activation through interacting with the general transcription factor, TFIIB. Conclusions Since W7 shares no sequence homology or features with any known transcription activators, it may represent a novel class of AD.