Although acquired thermotolerance has been linked to the induction of heat shock proteins, the molecular mechanism(s) by which cells become resistant to heat is unknown. The present study shows a strong correlation between the survival of cells following heat shock and the rate of recovery of protein, total RNA, and rRNA synthesis. Increasing exposure of CHO cells to 45 degrees C was found to decrease survival and cause a lengthening delay in these synthetic processes. The same reciprocal correlation was seen in thermotolerant cells. As thermotolerance develops, more cells survive a heat challenge and the delay in synthesis decreases. These data argue that enhanced recovery of protein and RNA synthesis is one factor which plays a key role in thermotolerance. The involvement of rRNA synthesis was further investigated by using actinomycin D at 0.1 microgram m1(-1), a concentration at which rRNA synthesis is selectively inhibited. When the drug was present during the recovery from a challenge heat treatment, the survival of thermotolerant cells was approximately 3-fold lower than expected from the mild toxicity of the drug. As this could not be accounted for by an interaction of the drug with the response of cells to single heat treatments, it is concluded that the drug inhibits the expression of thermotolerance in cells which would otherwise express a full degree of thermotolerance. The time and concentration dependence of this effect indicates that the drug acts though inhibition of rRNA synthesis. Therefore, enhanced recovery of RNA synthesis, presumably rRNA synthesis, is identified as one of the mechanisms responsible for enhanced survival of thermotolerant cells following heat shock.