The melanoma differentiation associated gene, mda-6, which is identical to the P53-inducible gene WAF1/CIP1, encodes an M(r) 21,000 protein (p21) that can directly inhibit cell growth by repressing cyclin dependent kinases. mda-6 was identified using subtraction hybridization by virtue of its enhanced expression in human melanoma cells induced to terminally differentiate by treatment with human fibroblast interferon and the anti-leukemic compound mezerein (Jiang and Fisher, 1993). In the present study, we demonstrate that mda-6 (WAF1/CIP1) is an immediate early response gene induced during differentiation of the promyelocytic HL-60 leukemia cell line along the granulocytic or macrophage/monocyte pathway. mda-6 gene expression in HL-60 cells is induced within 1 to 3 h during differentiation along the macrophage/monocyte pathway evoked by 12-0-tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate (TPA) or 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (Vit D3) or the granulocytic pathway produced by retinoic acid (RA) or dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO). Immunoprecipitation analyses using an anti-p21 antibody indicate a temporal induction of p21 protein following treatment with TPA, DMSO or RA. A relationship between rapid induction of mda-6 gene expression and differentiation is indicated by a delay in this expression in an HL-60 cell variant resistant to TPA-induced growth arrest and differentiation. A similar delay in mda-6 gene expression is not observed in Vit D3 treated TPA-resistant variant cells that are also sensitive to induction of monocytic differentiation. Since HL-60 cells have a null-p53 phenotype, these results demonstrate that p21 induction occurs during initiation of terminal differentiation in a p53-independent manner. In this context, p21 may play a more global role in growth control and differentiation than originally envisioned.