Dynamic intracellular ATP and Pi levels were measured non-invasively for Chinese hamster V79 cells by 31P-NMR under conditions of thermotolerance and heat-shock protein induction. High densities of cells were embedded in agarose strands, placed within a standard NMR sample tube, and perfused with medium maintained either at 37 or 43 degrees C at pH 7.35. Cell survival and heat-shock protein synthesis were assessed either from parallel monolayer cultures or cells dislodged from the agarose strands post-treatment. Thermotolerance (heat resistance) and heat-shock protein synthesis was induced by a 1 h exposure to 43 degrees C followed by incubation for 5 h at 37 degrees C. After the 5 h incubation at 37 degrees C, marked thermal resistance was observed in regard to survival with concomitant synthesis of two major heat-shock proteins at 70 and 103 kDa. Studies were also conducted where tolerance and heat-shock protein synthesis were partially inhibited by depletion of cellular glutathione (GSH) prior to and during heat treatment. Dynamic measurement of intracellular ATP of cells heated with or without GSH depletion revealed no change in steady-state levels immediately after heating or during the 5 h post-heating incubation at 37 degrees C where thermotolerance and heat-shock proteins develop. These data are consistent with other reported data for mammalian cells and indicate that the steady-state ATP levels in mammalian cells remain unchanged during and after the acquisition of the thermotolerant state.