Human osteosarcoma cells, MG-63, were exposed to a hydrostatic pressure shock of 4.0 MPa for 20 min. Changes in subcellular distribution of the cytoskeletal elements and heat shock protein 70 (hsp70) were followed by indirect immunofluorescence and by avidin-biotin-peroxidase protocols. During recovery, total cellular RNA was determined and actin and aldolase mRNA content was followed using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction techniques. Hydrostatic pressure caused cell rounding (but not cell death), disruption of microtubules, collapse of intermediate filaments to a perinuclear location, collapse of actin stress fibers into globular aggregates in the cytoplasm, and the formation of several large elongated intranuclear actin inclusions. During recovery, the cells flattened, reorganized microtubules, and redistributed intermediate filaments prior to the reappearance of actin stress fibers. At 20 and 60 min following the initiation of hydrostatic pressure, there was increased anti-hsp 70 staining at the nuclear membrane and concentration of hsp70 in four to six granules in the nucleus. At 120 min following the hydrostatic pressure, hsp70 showed intense staining in the cytoplasm and hsp70-containing granules in the nucleus disappeared. Cellular RNA decreased during the first 120-min posthydrostatic pressure shock and then recovered to near prehydrostatic pressure treatment levels by 240 min. Actin mRNA abundance, in relation to aldolase mRNA abundance, showed the same temporal pattern of initial decrease, followed by increase as did total RNA. Review of the literature indicated that eukaryotic cells respond to heat shock and to hydrostatic pressure by disruption of the cytoskeletal elements and by similar modifications in genetic expression. In this study, the observed responses of MG-63 cells to a 4-MPa hydrostatic pressure shock was like the reported response of mammalian cells to a 43 degrees C heat shock.