Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is currently under investigation in phase II and III clinical studies for the treatment of tumours in superficial localisations. Thus far, the underlying mechanisms of PDT regarding cellular responses and gene regulation are poorly understood. Photochemically generated singlet oxygen (1O2) is mainly responsible for cytotoxicity induced by PDT. If targeted cells are not disintegrated, photo-oxidative stress leads to transcription and translation of various stress response and cytokine genes. Tumour necrosis factor (TNF) alpha, interleukin (IL) 1 and IL-6 are strongly induced by photodynamic treatment, supporting inflammatory action and immunological anti-tumour responses. To investigate the first steps of gene activation, this study focused on the proto-oncogenes c-jun and c-fos, both coding for the transcription factor activator protein 1 (AP-1), which was found to mediate IL-6 gene expression. We here determine the effects of photodynamic treatment on transcriptional regulation and DNA binding of transcription factor AP-1 in order to understand the modulation of subsequent regulatory steps. Photodynamic treatment of epithelial HeLa cells was performed by incubation with Photofrin and illumination with 630 nm laser light in vitro. Expression of the c-jun and c-fos genes was determined by way of Northern blot analysis, and DNA-binding activity of the transcription factor AP-1 was evaluated by electrophoretic mobility shift assay (EMSA). Photofrin-mediated photosensitisation of HeLa cells resulted in a rapid and dose-dependent induction of both genes but preferential expression of c-jun. Compared with the transient expression of c-jun and c-fos by phorbol ester stimulation, photodynamic treatment led to a prolonged activation pattern of both immediate early genes. Furthermore, mRNA stability studies revealed an increased half-life of c-jun and c-fos transcripts resulting from photosensitisation. Although mRNA accumulation after PDT was stronger and more prolonged compared with phorbol ester stimulation, with regard to AP-1 DNA-binding activity, phorbol ester was more efficient. Surprisingly, in addition to the activation of AP-1 DNA-binding via PDT, photodynamic treatment can decrease AP-1 DNA-binding of other strong inducers, such as the protein kinase C-mediated pathway of phorbol esters and the antioxidant pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC). This study demonstrates a strong induction of c-jun and c-fos expression by PDT, with prolonged kinetics and mRNA stabilisation as compared with activation by phorbol esters. Interestingly, this observation is not coincident with an overinduction of AP-1 DNA-binding, hence suggesting that post-translational modifications are dominant regulatory mechanisms after PDT that tightly control AP-1 activity in the nucleus thus limiting the risk of deregulated oncogene expression.