Growth-regulating cellular genes or genes encoding proteins involved in cell cycle control are likely to be major targets of viral gene products in the establishment of a cellular state favourable for a permissive infection. We have examined whether infection of permissive fibroblasts with human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) results in trans-regulation of such cellular genes. Here we have shown that the proto-oncogenes c-fos and c-myc are specifically induced during immediate early (IE) and early times of HCMV infection, as has recently been shown for the heat shock protein 70 gene (hsp70). Deletion analyses and transfection assays of all three promoters showed that previously defined control sequences upstream of the constitutive promoters and downstream of the mRNA cap site are not required for this up-regulation by HCMV, such that the minimal inducible promoters of c-fos, c-myc and the hsp70 gene contained only 50 to 60 bp upstream of the transcription start site. Cotransfection assays with vectors expressing HCMV major IE cDNAs showed that the 72K IE1 and 80K IE2 proteins are involved in the up-regulation of these promoters. IE1 and IE2 products independently were able to up-regulate the minimal constitutive promoters of the constructs tested here, but trans-activation by IE1 and IE2 together was synergistic. In the case of the hsp70 promoter, promoter constructs containing a variety of different TATA elements could be activated by the 72K IE1 and 80K IE2 proteins.