The nuclear oncoproteins fos and jun are associated as a heterodimer which binds to TPA (PMA or TPA: phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate)- responsive promoter elements (TRE), the recognition site for the transcription factor AP-1. The fos/jun heterodimer has a higher affinity to the TRE and stimulates transcription of responsive genes more than the jun homodimer. The association of these two oncoproteins may play a central role in signal transduction and regulation of cell proliferation and differentiation. We further defined the regulation of fos and jun by studying their inducibility by second messengers in cells of hematopoietic origin. In THP-1 monocytic leukemia cells fos and jun mRNA levels are regulated in a coupled manner by second messengers activated after membrane phospholipid turnover. Addition of phospholipase C to cells, as well as stimulation of protein kinase C and release of intracellular Ca2+, caused a rapid induction of fos and jun mRNA levels, but the induction of jun mRNA showed a more persistant and less transient pattern than fos. In contrast to the phosphoinositol system, stimulation of the adenylate cyclase pathway in THP-1 cells induced only fos transcription whereas jun mRNA levels remained unchanged. A similar uncoupling of fos and jun inducibility was found after phorbol ester addition to the human erythroleukemia cell line HEL and the human promyelocytic cell line HL-60. The uncoupling of fos and jun levels might predispose cells to the formation of combinatorial transcription complexes of a different composition and activity than the fos/jun heterodimer. Indeed, nuclear extracts from THP-1 cells before or after activation of the phosphinositol or adenylate cyclase second messenger pathways revealed a correlation in fos and jun expression and specific binding of the heterocomplex to a TRE sequence.