Estrogen hormones are potent mitogens for certain target tissues, where they stimulate cell growth by inducing recruitment of quiescent cells in cycle and by fostering cell cycle progression. To define the molecular bases of the mitogenic action of these steroid hormones, the pattern of "immediate-early" gene expression was monitored during the early phases of estrogen stimulation of rat uterine cells in vivo. Nuclear run-on transcription and/or Northern blot RNA analysis indicate that c-jun, junB, jun-D, c-fos, TIS 1 (also called NGFI-B or nur/77) and TIS 8 (zif-268, krox24, egr-1, or NGFI-A) genes are all transiently activated in the uterus (up to 20-fold) within 30-120 min after treatment of adult ovariectomized rats with a mitogenic dose of 17b-estradiol. Conversely, JE gene mRNA accumulates progressively in estrogen-stimulated uterine cells, whereas TIS 11 and 21 genes are only slightly responsive to the hormone (less than twofold induction) and fos B,fra-1,fra-2,krox20 (egr-2), TIS 7 and 10, KC, and c-rel mRNAs are undetectable in rat uterus either before or after estrogen treatment. Stimulation in the presence of cycloheximide shows that only c-jun, jun-D, c-fos, and JE gene activations are primary responses to the hormone in rat uterine cells. These findings establish the direct mitogenic role of estrogen and identify for the first time a specific genetic program activated by these steroid hormones during stimulation of target cell proliferation. Furthermore, since most of the activated genes encode for transcription factors, these results enable us to envision how the mitogenic signal transmitted by the hormone can be elaborated and amplified within target cells by the products of estrogen-responsive genes, leading to a cascade of growth-dependent gene regulation, cell cycle progression, and, ultimately, cell division.