We evaluated the extent to which muscle-specific genes display identical patterns of mRNA accumulation during human myogenesis. Cloned satellite cells isolated from adult human skeletal muscle were expanded in culture, and RNA was isolated from low- and high-confluence cells and from fusing cultures over a 15-day time course. The accumulation of over 20 different transcripts was compared in these samples with that in fetal and adult human skeletal muscle. The expression of carbonic anhydrase 3, myoglobin, HSP83, and mRNAs encoding eight unknown proteins were examined in human myogenic cultures. In general, the expression of most of the mRNAs was induced after fusion to form myotubes. However, several exceptions, including carbonic anhydrase and myoglobin, showed no detectable expression in early myotubes. Comparison of all transcripts demonstrated little, if any, identity of mRNA accumulation patterns. Similar variability was also seen for mRNAs which were also expressed in nonmuscle cells. Accumulation of mRNAs encoding alpha-skeletal, alpha-cardiac, beta- and gamma-actin, total myosin heavy chain, and alpha- and beta-tubulin also displayed discordant regulation, which has important implications for sarcomere assembly. Cardiac actin was the only muscle-specific transcript that was detected in low-confluency cells and was the major alpha-actin mRNA at all times in fusing cultures. Skeletal actin was transiently induced in fusing cultures and then reduced by an order of magnitude. Total myosin heavy-chain mRNA accumulation lagged behind that of alpha-actin. Whereas beta- and gamma-actin displayed a sharp decrease after initiation of fusion and thereafter did not change, alpha- and beta-tubulin were transiently induced to a high level during the time course in culture. We conclude that each gene may have its own unique determinants of transcript accumulation and that the phenotype of a muscle may not be determined so much by which genes are active or silent but rather by the extent to which their transcript levels are modulated. Finally, we observed that patterns of transcript accumulation established within the myotube cultures were consistent with the hypothesis that myoblasts isolated from adult tissue recapitulate a myogenic developmental program. However, we also detected a transient appearance of adult skeletal muscle-specific transcripts in high-confluence myoblast cultures. This indicates that the initial differentiation of these myoblasts may reflect a more complex process than simple recapitulation of development.