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alpha B-crystallin, a major soluble protein of vertebrate eye lenses, is a small heat shock protein which transiently accumulates in response to heat shock and other kinds of stress in mouse NIH 3T3 fibroblasts. Ectopic expression of an alpha B-crystallin cDNA clone renders NIH 3T3 cells thermoresistant. alpha B-crystallin accumulates in response to the synthetic glucocorticoid hormone dexamethasone. Dexamethasone-treated NIH 3T3 cells become thermoresistant to the same extent as they accumulate alpha B-crystallin. A cell clone in which alpha B-crystallin is superinduced upon heat shock acquires augmented thermotolerance. Expression of the ras oncogene causes a rapid but transient accumulation of alpha B-crystallin within 1 day. Later, sustained ras oncogene expression suppresses the dexamethasone-mediated alpha B-crystallin accumulation. Thus, oncogenic transformation triggered by the ras oncogene interferes with hormone-mediated accumulation of alpha B-crystallin and concomitant acquisition of thermoresistance. Other known heat shock proteins do not accumulate in response to ectopic alpha B-crystallin expression or to dexamethasone treatment. These results indicate that alpha B-crystallin can protect NIH 3T3 fibroblasts from thermal shock.