Expression of the two sarcomeric actins, alpha-skeletal and alpha-cardiac, is regulated in the rodent heart in response to developmental, hormonal, and hemodynamic stimuli. Little is known in man, except that both isogenes were found to be coexpressed in three adult ventricles. In this report, we investigated the isoactin mRNA composition in ventricles from 21 control patients (4 fetal, 5 juvenile, 12 adult) and from 15 patients undergoing cardiac transplantation (5 idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathies, 5 ischemic myopathies with myocardial infarcts, 5 diverse etiologies) by two different and complementary techniques: RNA dot blot analysis with specific cDNA probes, and primer extensions with an oligonucleotide common to alpha-cardiac and alpha-skeletal actins. In the case of dot blot analysis, quantification of each isoform was performed by using as standards RNA transcripts obtained from cloned human alpha-actin sequences, and the total amount of sarcomeric actin mRNA was evaluated as a function of total poly(A+)RNA. We found that both isogenes are always coexpressed, and that the isoactin pattern changes during development. In utero and in neonatal hearts, alpha-skeletal actin mRNA represents less than or equal to 20% of sarcomeric actins, it increases to 48 +/- 6% during the first decade after birth and becomes the predominant isoform of adult hearts (60.4 +/- 8.5%). The 15 adult failing hearts exhibited the same isoactin pattern as the control ones (62.84 +/- 11.06%), and there was no difference in expression between patients with dilated cardiomyopathy or ischemic heart disease. These observations demonstrate that cardiac development in man, in contrast to rodent heart, is characterized by an up-regulation of the skeletal actin gene, the expression of which does not change in hypertrophied and failing hearts, and suggest that the actin and myosin heavy chain families are independently regulated in human heart.