Biochemical events were investigated in the G1 to S phase progression induced in quiescent rodent cells by human adenovirus type 5 (Ad5) and by serum. Thymidine kinase activity increased after infection of cells with Ad5 or addition of 10% serum. These stimulations were additive. An early viral gene was responsible for induction by Ad5, but the early mutants ts36, ts37, and ts125 induced thymidine kinase at the permissive and nonpermissive temperatures. Several differences were found between cells stimulated by serum compared with Ad5. Induction of thymidine kinase was delayed in Ad5-infected cells, insensitive to 0.01 microgram/ml actinomycin D and relatively resistant to reduced Ca2+ compared with induction by serum. Ornithine decarboxylase was induced by serum, but not by Ad5, alpha-Methylornithine had little effect on the induction of thymidine kinase by Ad5, but reduced the induction of thymidine kinase by serum, suggesting that Ad5-induced entry into S phase is uncoupled from polyamine biosynthesis. Methylglyoxal bis(guanylhydrazone), however, prevented the induction of thymidine kinase by both serum and Ad5. Adenovirus infection appears to induce cellular DNA synthesis and thymidine kinase in G1-arrested cells by a mechanism different from serum, and bypasses events in the normal G1 to S phase progression.