Tobacco shoots exposed to elevated endogenous or exogenous cytokinin levels are unable to develop roots and lack apical dominance. We have isolated cDNA copies of five mRNA species that accumulate to elevated levels in such cytokinin-stressed shoots via differential screening of a cDNA library of transgenic shoots which contain an active T-DNA cytokinin gene (T-cyt gene) from Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Four of the cDNA clones were found to correspond to plant defence-related mRNAs, encoding extensin, chitinase, PR-1 and a PR-1-like protein, respectively. In normal tobacco plants PR-1 mRNA is relatively rare in all organs. The other four mRNAs occur at relatively low levels in shoots, especially in leaves, but are very prevalent in roots. Extensin mRNA, for example, is not detectable in leaves, while it is an abundant mRNA in roots and stems. In normal shoots cultured on cytokinin-containing medium all five mRNAs accumulate to elevated levels, similar to those found in transgenic T-cyt shoots. We conclude that the imposed cytokinin stress causes changes in the tissue-specific control of the levels of several defence-related mRNA species in tobacco.