Retinoic acid (RA) has been shown to be able to antagonize or synergize with phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA). In contrast to its antagonistic effects on PMA-dependent gene expression, no molecular target or mechanism of synergism has been characterized yet. We now report, that RA synergistically enhances the induction of c-fos, but not c-jun mRNA by PMA in cells whose growth was stimulated by RA alone. The responding cells were hybrids of tumor cell lines whose growth and PMA-dependent c-fos mRNA expression remained unaffected by RA. The increase in PMA-dependent c-fos expression required pretreatment of cells with RA for at least 2-4 h and was achieved at doses as low as 10(-10) M. Nuclear run-on experiments and transient transfection assays using a chimeric reporter gene construct with sequences from the c-fos promoter indicated that RA did not affect PMA-dependent c-fos transcription. Instead, RA stabilized the c-fos message after induction by PMA as assessed by measuring the half-life of c-fos mRNA in actinomycin D-treated cells. This post-transcriptional regulation provides a mechanism whereby RA can synergistically enhance gene expression by PMA.