Parental and multidrug resistant HL60 leukemia cell lines were used to study coupling of expression of apoptotic/cytostatic (bcl-2, bax, bclxL, p21/Waf1, and c-myc) genes during differentiation. The multidrug resistant HL60 cell line, HL60/ADR, was less sensitive than parental cells to cytostatic activity of low (0.4-2 ng/ml) doses of PMA. However, during treatment with standard differentiating doses of PMA (10 ng/ml), no difference between the two cell lines in cytostasis and differentiation was found. Downregulation of c-myc and upregulation of p21/Waf1 proteins showed the same time-course in both cell lines. The bcl-2 mRNA was rapidly downregulated while bax and bclxL gene expression was not altered in both differentiating HL60 and HL60/ADR cells. Significant downregulation of bcl-2 protein occurred only in parental HL60 cells. In HL60/ADR, despite rapid cessation of bcl-2 protein synthesis, almost no change in steady-state bcl-2 protein level was found. The lack of bcl-2 protein downregulation was a result of the prolonged half-life of this protein in HL60/ADR cells. Thus, although downregulation of bcl-2 mRNA is coupled to differentiation, actual loss of bcl-2 protein is not required for accomplishment of the differentiation program.