Spatio-temporal variation in heat-shock gene expression gives organisms the ability to respond to changing thermal environments. The temperature at which heat-shock genes are induced, the threshold induction temperature, varies as a function of the recent thermal history of an organism. To elucidate the mechanism by which this plasticity in gene expression is achieved, we determined heat-shock protein (Hsp) induction threshold temperatures in the intertidal mussel Mytilus trossulus collected from the field in February and again in August. In a separate experiment, threshold induction temperatures, endogenous levels of both the constitutive and inducible isoforms of Hsps from the 70 kDa family and the quantity of ubiquitinated proteins (a measure of cellular protein denaturation) were measured in M. trossulus after either 6 weeks of cold acclimation in the laboratory or acclimatization to warm, summer temperatures in the field over the same period. In addition, we quantified levels of activated heat-shock transcription factor 1 (HSF1) in both groups of mussels (HSF1 inducibly transactivates all classes of Hsp genes). Lastly, we compared the temperature of HSF1 activation with the induction threshold temperature in the congeneric M. californianus. It was found that the threshold induction temperature in M. trossulus was 23 degrees C in February and 28 degrees C in August. This agreed with the acclimation/acclimatization experiment, in which mussels acclimated in seawater tables to a constant temperature of 10-11 degrees C for 6 weeks displayed a threshold induction temperature of 20-23 degrees C compared with 26-29 degrees C for individuals that were experiencing considerably warmer body temperatures in the intertidal zone over the same period. This coincided with a significant increase in the inducible isoform of Hsp70 in warm-acclimatized individuals but no increase in the constitutive isoform or in HSF1. Levels of ubiquitin-conjugated protein were significantly higher in the field mussels than in the laboratory-acclimated individuals. Finally, the temperature of HSF1 activation in M. californianus was found to be approximately 9 degrees C lower than the induction threshold for this species.