Pulse-labeling studies from our laboratory and others have shown that extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields can produce a transient increase in gene transcription. In this study, the synthesis, degradation and processing, and steady state levels of specific RNA species during exposure to ELF radiation were determined in human leukemia HL-60 cells. The overall steady state RNA levels, assessed by continuous and equilibrium labeling with 3H-uridine, were not affected by ELF exposure. Northern blot analysis using probes specific for c-myc, beta-actin, and 45S ribosomal RNA gene products revealed that ELF did not alter the steady state levels of these RNAs. Examination of gene-specific transcription by a novel nuclease protection assay revealed that while ELF did not substantially alter the transcription rates for c-myc and beta-actin, transcription of the 45S ribosomal RNA gene was increased by 40-50%. To explain the observed increase in the synthesis of 45S ribosomal RNA without an associated increase in its steady state level, the degradation and processing of the ribosomal gene transcript in the presence and absence of an ELF field were followed by pulse-chase 3H-uridine labeling. This revealed that ELF radiation accelerated both the processing and degradation of the ribosomal RNA transcript. During ELF exposure, the half-life of the 45S ribosomal RNA was decreased from 115 min. to 85 min. These results show that ELF can selectively affect RNA levels by modulating either the transcription rate and/or RNA post-transcriptional processing and turnover.