Transgenic nematodes (Caenorhabditis elegans strain PC72), carrying a stress-inducible reporter gene (Escherichia coli beta-galactosidase) under the control of a C. elegans hsp16 heat-shock promoter, have been used to monitor toxicant responses both in water and soil. Because these transgenic nematodes respond both to heat and toxic chemicals by synthesising an easily detectable reporter product, they afford a useful preliminary screen for stress responses (whether thermal or non-thermal) induced by microwave radiation or other electromagnetic fields. We have used a transverse electromagnetic (TEM) cell fed from one end by a source and terminated at the other end by a matched load. Most studies were conducted using a frequency of 750 MHz, at a nominal power setting of 27 dBm. The TEM cell was held in an incubator at 25 degrees C inside a shielded room; corresponding controls were shielded and placed in the same 25 degrees C incubator; additional baseline controls were held at 15 degrees C (worm growth temperature). Stress responses were measured in terms of beta-galactosidase (reporter) induction above control levels. The time-course of response to continuous microwave radiation showed significant differences from 25 degrees C controls both at 2 and 16 h, but not at 4 or 8 h. Using a 5 x 5 multiwell plate array exposed for 2 h, the 25 microwaved samples showed highly significant responses compared with a similar control array. The wells most strongly affected were those in the rows closest to the source, whereas the most distant row did not rise above control levels, suggesting a shadow effect. These differential responses are difficult to reconcile with general heating effects, although localised power absorption affords a possible explanation. Experiments in which the frequency and/or power settings were varied suggested a greater response at 21 than at 27 dBm, both at 750 and 300 MHz, although extremely variable responses were observed at 24 dBm and 750 MHz. Thus, lower power levels tended, if anything, to induce larger responses (with the above-mentioned exception), which is opposite to the trend anticipated for any simple heating effect. These results are reproducible and data acquisition is both rapid and simple. The evidence accrued to date suggests that microwave radiation causes measurable stress to transgenic nematodes, presumably reflecting increased levels of protein damage within cells (the common signal thought to trigger hsp gene induction). The response levels observed are comparable to those observed with moderate concentrations (ppm) of metal ions such as Zn2+ and Cu2+. We conclude that this approach deserves further and more detailed investigation, but that it has already demonstrated clear biological effects of microwave radiation in terms of the activation of cellular stress responses (hsp gene induction).