During growth, Dictyostelium cells continuously secrete a factor, PSF, that accumulates in proportion to cell density. At sufficient concentration, it triggers the production of discoidin I and certain lysosomal enzymes. Our earlier studies demonstrated these effects of PSF on protein and enzyme levels [Clarke et al., Differentiation 34:79-87, 1987; Clarke et al., Dev Genet 9: 315-326, 1988]. In the present study, we have examined whether PSF induces increased mRNA levels. By Northern blot analysis, we have found that discoidin I mRNA accumulates in exponentially growing NC4 cells as the cells reach high density; significant levels of mRNA are detectable in cells growing either on plates or in suspension, beginning about four generations before the end of exponential growth. High levels of discoidin I mRNA are also found in low-density cells grown in the presence of buffer conditioned by high-density cells. These results indicate that PSF induces the accumulation of discoidin I mRNA. Other "early developmental" genes, pCZ22 and the early I genes (16, 18, and 111), are also expressed in exponentially growing cells at high density or in the presence of conditioned buffer. We conclude that several genes previously found to be preferentially expressed very early in development are actually induced during late exponential growth by PSF.