Transitions from small cell (SCLC) to non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cells have been documented both in vitro and in vivo and are thought to be an important step during tumor progression of human small cell lung cancer towards a treatment-resistant tumor state. We have screened NSCLC and SCLC cell lines for differences in the composition of nuclear transcription factors using consensus oligonucleotide sequences (SRE, Ets, TRE, CRE, B-motif, GAS, E-box). We found NSCLC cells to exhibit significantly higher AP-1 binding activity than SCLC cells consistent with the increased expression of CD44, an AP-1 target gene. To gain more insight into the molecular mechanisms underlying these differences, we analysed SCLC cell lines (NCI-N592 and NCI-H69) which were phenotypically transformed into NSCLC-type cells by transfection with activated H-ras and c-myc oncogenes. In these cells, ras-induced transition is accompanied by a strong induction of AP-1-binding activity along with increased expression of CD44 mRNA and protein. When analysing the composition of the AP-1 complex in more detail and comparing ras-induced versus phorbol ester-induced changes, we found Fra-1 to be the major component induced in ras-transfected but not in phorbol-ester treated or non-treated parental SCLC cells. This finding is paralleled by the observation that among the various members of the Fos and Jun family analysed (c-Fos, FosB, Fra-1, Fra-2, c-Jun, JunD, JunB) fra-1 is the only gene to be exclusively expressed in NSCLC cells but not in cells of SCLC origin. Our data, thus, point to a histiotype-related mechanism of recruitment among AP-1 proteins which may have bearings on the fate of lung cancer development.