The immune state of insects is defined by a set of proteins that is absent in the naive state. To explore the immune system of Trichoplusia ni in more detail we have employed a PCR differential display technique to compare the mRNA population of untreated last instar larvae to that of immunized animals. In the primary display, more than one hundred bands seemed induced upon bacterial challenge. When they were used as probes in Northern blots, 35% of these probes detected inducible mRNA species. Such probes were used to screen a cDNA library from immunized larvae. We isolated clones for T. ni homologs of cecropin A, lysozyme and attacin. One differentially expressed band hybridized to clones for BJHSP1, a hemacy-anin-related protein which is hormonally up-regulated in last instar larvae; this induction is probably not related to the bacterial infection. Still other probes recognized inducible mRNAs of 1.6 and 1.0 kb. The corresponding cDNA clones did not show strong sequence homology to any known proteins. We have demonstrated the potential of this PCR technique to display both known and unknown genes specific for the immune state of whole insects against a background of genes involved in larval development.