Electrical stimulation of neonatal cardiac myocytes produces hypertrophy and cellular maturation with increased mitochondrial content and activity. To investigate the patterns of gene expression associated with these processes, cardiac myocytes were stimulated for varying times up to 72 hr in serum-free culture. The mRNA contents for genes associated with transcriptional activation [c-fos, c-jun, JunB, nuclear respiratory factor 1 (NRF-1)], mitochondrial proliferation [cytochrome c (Cyt c), cytochrome oxidase], and mitochondrial differentiation [carnitine palmitoyltransferase I (CPT-I) isoforms] were measured. The results establish a temporal pattern of mRNA induction beginning with c-fos (0.25-3 hr) and followed sequentially by c-jun (0.5-3 hr), JunB (0.5-6 hr), NRF-1 (1-12 hr), Cyt c (12-72 hr), and muscle-specific CPT-I (48-72 hr). Induction of the latter was accompanied by a marked decrease in the liver-specific CPT-I mRNA, thus supporting the developmental fidelity of this pattern of gene regulation. Consistent with a transcriptional mechanism, electrical stimulation increased c-fos, beta-myosin heavy chain, and Cyt c promoter activities. These increases coincided with a rise in their respective endogenous gene transcripts. NRF-1, cAMP response element, and Sp-1 site mutations within the Cyt c promoter reduced luciferase expression in both stimulated and nonstimulated myocytes. Mutations in the NRF-1 and CRE sites inhibited the induction by electrical stimulation (5-fold and 2-fold, respectively) whereas mutation of the Sp-1 site maintained or increased the fold induction. This finding is consistent with the appearance of NRF-1 and fos/jun mRNAs prior to that of Cyt c and suggests that induction of these transcription factors is a prerequisite for the transcriptional activation of Cyt c expression. These results support a regulatory role for NRF-1 and possibly AP-1 in the initiation of mitochondrial proliferation.