A subset of heat shock proteins, HSP90 alpha, HSP90 beta, and a member of the HSP70 family, HSC70, shows enhanced synthesis following mitogenic activation as well as heat shock in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. In this study, we have examined expression of mRNA for these proteins, including the major 70-kDa heat shock protein, HSP70, in mononuclear cells following either heat shock or mitogenic activation with phytohemagglutinin (PHA), ionomycin, and the phorbol ester, tetradecanoyl phorbol acetate. The results demonstrate that the kinetics of mRNA expression of these four genes generally parallel the kinetics of enhanced protein synthesis seen following either heat shock or mitogen activation and provide clear evidence that mitogen-induced synthesis of HSC70 and HSP90 is due to increased mRNA levels and not simply to enhanced translation of preexisting mRNA. Although most previous studies have focused on cell cycle regulation of HSP70 mRNA, we found that HSP70 mRNA was only slightly and transiently induced by PHA activation, while HSC70 is the predominant 70-kDa heat shock protein homologue induced by mitogens. Similarly, HSP90 alpha appears more inducible by heat shock than mitogens while the opposite is true for HSP90 beta. These results suggest that, although HSP70 and HSC70 have been shown to contain similar promoter regions, additional regulatory mechanisms which result in differential expression to a given stimulus must exist. They clearly demonstrate that human lymphocytes are an important model system for determining mechanisms for regulation of heat shock protein synthesis in unstressed cells. Finally, based on kinetics of mRNA expression, the results are consistent with the hypothesis that HSC70 and HSP90 gene expression are driven by an IL-2/IL-2 receptor-dependent pathway in human T cells.