Thyroid hormone exerts marked effects on cardiovascular function. Expression of cardiac alpha- and beta-myosin heavy chain (MHC) isoforms can be altered in response to thyroid hormone as well as by hemodynamic changes imposed on the heart. The molecular mechanisms that mediate these changes are not completely known. We studied the contractile and thyroid hormone responsiveness of the betaMHC promoter in both cultured cardiac myocytes and in vivo by direct DNA transfer. Using transient transfection of neonatal rat cardiomyocytes, the activities of recombinant reporter plasmids containing betaMHC 5'-flanking sequences terminating at positions -2250, -1145, -670, and -354 were decreased significantly in cultures containing L-T3 (50 nM). Similar deletion analysis showed that 5'-flanking regions terminating within -2250 to -151 bp were contractility responsive; however, deletion to position -126 attenuated this response. In vivo betaMHC promoter activity, determined by injecting the recombinant plasmid into the myocardium, was significantly higher by 2-fold in hyperthyroid than in euthyroid ventricles (2.47 +/- 0.41 vs. 1.33 +/- 0.25 luciferase/ chloramphenicol acetyltransferase; P<0.05). Increased ventricular workload, produced by aortic coarctation for 5 days, resulted in ventricular hypertrophy (heart/body weight, 4.05 +/- 0.19 vs. 3.42 +/- 0.16 mg/g; P < 0.02) and a 3.4-fold increase in betaMHC messenger RNA content. However, betaMHC promoter activity in vivo was not significantly different between rats experiencing aortic coarctation and sham-operated rats (1.49 +/- 0.41 vs. 0.96 +/- 0.27 luciferase chloramphenicol acetyltransferase, respectively) and was similar to that in euthyroid animals. These results show that betaMHC promoter activity is T3 responsive in cultured myocytes and in vivo, but that the increase in betaMHC messenger RNA observed in the in vivo pressure overloaded myocardium cannot be explained entirely by transcription control mechanisms.