A novel chemical induction system for transcription in plants has been developed, taking advantage of the regulatory mechanism of vertebrate steroid hormone receptors. A chimeric transcription of the DNA-binding domain of the yeast transcription factor GAL4, the transactivating domain of the herpes viral protein VP16, and the receptor domain of the rat glucocorticoid receptor (GR). The GVG gene was introduced into transgenic tobacco and Arabidopsis together with a luciferase (Luc) gene which was transcribed from a promoter containing six tandem copies of the GAL4 upstream activating sequence. Induction of luciferase activity was observed when the transgenic tobacco plants were grown on an agar medium containing dexamethasone (DEX), a strong synthetic glucocorticoid. Induction levels of the luciferase activity were well correlated with DEX concentrations in the range from 0.1 to 10 microM and the maximum expression level was over 100 times that of the basal level. Analysis of the induction kinetics by Northern blot analysis showed that the Luc mRNA was first detected 1 h after DEX treatment and increased to the maximum level in 4 h. The stationary induction level and the duration of the induction varied with the glucocorticoid derivative used. The GVG gene activity can also be regulated by DEX in transgenic Arabidopsis plants. The results indicate that a stringent chemical control of transcription can be achieved in plants with the GVG system. Advantages and potential uses of this system are also discussed.