We tested the hypothesis that early alterations in calcium influx induced by an imposed 60 Hz magnetic field are propagated down the signal transduction (ST) cascade to alter c-MYC mRNa induction. To test this we measured both ST parameters in the same cells following 60 Hz magnetic field exposures in a specialized annular ring device (220 G (22 mT), 1.7 mV/cm maximal E(induced), 37 degrees C, 60 min). Ca2+ influx is a very early ST marker that precedes the specific induction of mRNA transcripts for the proto-oncogene c-MYC, an immediate early response gene. In three experiments influx of 45Ca2+ in the absence of mitogen was similar to that in cells treated with suboptimal levels of Con-A (1 micrograms/ml). However, calcium influx was elevated 1.5-fold when lymphocytes were exposed to Con-A plus magnetic fields; this co-stimulatory effect is consistent with previous reports from our laboratory [FEBS Lett. 301 (1992) 53-59; FEBS Lett. 271 (1990) 157-160; Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 649 (1992) 74-95]. The level of c-MYC mRNA transcript copies in non-activated cells and in suboptimally-activated cells was also similar, which is consistent with the above calcium influx findings. Significantly, lymphocytes exposed to the combination of magnetic fields plus suboptimal Con-A responded with an approximate 3.0-fold increase in band intensity of c-MYC mRNA transcripts. Importantly, transcripts for the housekeeping gene GAPDH were not influenced by mitogen or magnetic fields. We also observed that lymphocytes that failed to exhibit increased calcium influx in response to magnetic fields plus Con-A, also failed to exhibit an increase in total copies of c-MYC mRNA. Thus, calcium influx and c-MYC mRNA expression, which are sequentially linked via the signal transduction cascade in contrast to GAPDH, were both increased by magnetic fields. These findings support the above ST hypothesis and provide experimental evidence for a general biological framework for understanding magnetic field interactions with the cell through signal transduction. In addition, these findings indicate that magnetic fields can act as a co-stimulus at suboptimal levels of mitogen; pronounced physiological changes in lymphocytes such as calcium influx and c-MYC mRNA induction were not triggered by a weak mitogenic signal unless accompanied by a magnetic field. Magnetic fields, thus, have the ability to potentiate or amplify cell signaling.