The inducibility of stably transfected alpha-cardiac actin genes differs among L cell clones. We examined the ability of muscle-specific factors to induce the expression of the human muscle alpha-cardiac actin gene promoter when stably transfected into mouse fibroblast L cells. This promoter is transcriptionally active in L cells at a low level, 2-5% of that in transfected muscle cells. Upon fusion with muscle cells to form heterokaryons, expression of the transfected alpha- cardiac actin gene promoter can be induced. However, induction is observed with only 10% of transfected L cell clones and the magnitude of this induction varies between 5- and 50-fold. These properties of the transfected L cell appear to be stably inherited. Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that muscle cells contain factors capable of increasing the transcription of the transfected gene, but that differences among L cell clones, possibly in the site of integration in the genome, determine the extent to which the gene can respond. By fusion into heterokaryons, transfectants with responsive genes can be identified. Such clones should prove useful in determining the basis for clonal variation. In addition, they provide an in vivo system for isolating functionally active tissue-specific transcription factors and the genes that encode them.