The inflammatory response plays out over time in a reproducible and organized way after an initiating stimulus. Here we show that genes activated in cultured mouse fibroblasts in response to the cytokine tumor necrosis factor could be categorized into roughly three groups, each with different induction kinetics. Although differences in transcription were important in determining the grouping of these genes, differences in mRNA stability also exerted a strong influence on the temporal order of gene expression, in some cases overriding that of transcriptional control elements. Transcripts of mRNA expressed early had abundant AU-rich elements in their 3' untranslated regions, whereas those expressed later had fewer. Thus, mRNA stability and transcriptional control, two intrinsic characteristics of genes, control the kinetics of gene expression induced by proinflammatory cytokines.