Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco; EC 22.214.171.124) activase mRNA and protein synthesis were measured in the leaves of cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) plants under control (28 degrees C) or heat-stress (41 degrees C) conditions. A decline in activase transcript abundance occurred rapidly during the photoperiod and was unaffected by heat stress. In response to high temperature, de novo protein synthesis rapidly shifted from mainly expression of Rubisco large and small subunits to the major heat-shock proteins, while de novo synthesis of the constitutively expressed 47- and 43-kDa activase polypeptides was not appreciably altered. However, heat stress induced the synthesis of a 46-kDa polypeptide that immunoprecipitated with antibodies monospecific to activase. Expression of the 46-kDa polypeptide ceased within 1 h of the return of heat-stressed plants to control conditions. Activase precursors of 55 and 51 kDa were detected among the in vitro translation products of RNA from control and heat-stressed plants. In addition, a 53-kDa polypeptide that also immunoprecipitated with anti-activase IgG was among the in vitro translation products of RNA from heat-stressed plants. This putative activase precursor did not occur among the in vitro translation products of RNA from plants that had recovered from heat stress. The levels of the constitutive 47- and 43-kDa activase polypeptides were similar in control and heat-stressed plants, based on immunoblotting with antibodies to activase. However, a 46-kDa cross-reacting polypeptide was also present in heat-stressed plants and constituted about 5% of the total activase after 48 h at high temperature. The identity of the heat-induced 46-kDa polypeptide as activase was confirmed by protein sequencing, which showed that its N-terminal sequence was identical to that of the constitutive 47-kDa activase polypeptide. The presence of multiple isoforms for both the 47- and 43-kDa activase polypeptides on immunoblots of two-dimensional gels and the complex banding pattern on Southern blots together suggest the existence of more than one activase gene and the possibility that the synthesis of the heat-induced activase polypeptide may be regulated transcriptionally. Induction of a new form of activase may constitute a mechanism of photosynthetic acclimation to heat stress in cotton.