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Northern and dot blotting with a panel of DNA probes were used to monitor the levels of specific mRNAs in mitogen-stimulated human T cells. The induction of IL-2 and IFN mRNAs required the synergistic action of PMA and either PHA or OKT3 mAb. In contrast, several nonlymphokine genes, the protooncogenes c-fos and c-myc, and the IL-2-R gene, were induced by either PHA or PMA alone. PHA increased the background levels of a 70 kD heat shock protein mRNA, but did not affect the observed background of c-myb mRNA. For all mRNAs that were induced, isolated CD4 and CD8 T cell subsets behaved similarly. Exogenous IL-2 had little (IFN) or no (IL-2) effect on lymphokine mRNAs, but significantly increased c-myc, IL-2-R and heat shock protein mRNAs. Therefore, the stimuli for lymphokine mRNAs differed from those required for several inducible nonlymphokine genes. IL-2 and IFN mRNAs exhibited some important similarities with c-myc, however. The levels of IL-2, IFN, and c-myc mRNA followed similar kinetics, peaking at 3 h in restimulated blasts and at 12 h in unstimulated T cells. The subsequent downregulation of lymphokine and c-myc mRNAs was retarded by cycloheximide. The induction of IL-2, IFN, and c-myc mRNAs was blocked by the immunosuppressive drug CsA, but not by the inactive analog CsH, and this block occurred at the level of nuclear transcription. Since the exogenous stimuli for lymphokine and c-myc gene expression differ, we suggest that intracellular controls must be shared to account for the similarities in their kinetics of expression and CsA sensitivity.