A reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay is described that allows the rapid detection and quantitation of mRNA encoding the cytokines interleukin-2 (IL-2), IL-4 and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma). Analysis of cytokine production by defined CD4+ T cell clones and the thymoma cell line EL4, demonstrates that the oligonucleotide primers used in this assay are specific for the genes encoding the individual cytokines, generating PCR products of different sizes. This allows the simultaneous and unambiguous detection of all three cytokine mRNAs in the same cDNA sample. The assay is sensitive enough to reproducibly detect cytokine mRNA expressed in as few as ten cells and requires 10,000-fold less cells for the detection of IL-2 production than that required for its detection using a conventional bioassay. Reverse transcribed mRNA is quantitated in the PCR assay by amplifying in the presence of a known amount of competitive genomic DNA (gDNA) template containing a small intron using the same primers. The PCR products obtained form the target cDNA and gDNA templates, which are distinguished by size, are processed by Southern analysis and quantitated by scanning densitometry of autoradiographs. As little as two-fold differences in cytokine mRNA can be reliably detected using this assay. We have demonstrated the successful application of this assay to the quantitation of pg amounts of IL-2 mRNA that is constitutively produced at low levels by fetal thymocytes in vivo during T cell ontogeny. The sensitivity, specificity, reliability and speed of this assay will facilitate the analysis of cytokine production in in vivo-derived or, in vitro propagated cells which are not available in sufficient numbers for analysis using more conventional molecular and biochemical assays.