A pore-forming protein (PFP; perforin) and various serine esterases (SE) have been identified in the cytoplasmic granules of CTL and NK cells. Perforin and several SE have recently been cloned. Northern blotting analysis was performed here using cDNA probes specific for human perforin and two SE (SE 1/HS and SE 2/GB) to monitor the levels of specific mRNAs in mitogen-stimulated primary human T cells. These mRNAs were rapidly induced by IL-2 with optimal responses at 300 U/ml. After IL-2 treatment, mRNAs for perforin, SE 1, and SE 2 peaked at 12-24 h and decreased after 48 h. The three mRNAs were also induced in T cells treated with a combination of PMA plus lectin, OKT3 mAb, or plastic-adherent accessory cells. However, the induction induced by PMA/mitogen followed a slower kinetics, peaking at 48 h. In general, we found that SE 1 mRNA was more readily induced by IL-2, while SE 2 responded better to PMA/mitogen. Similar patterns of mRNA expression were observed for both unprimed T cells and PHA-primed T blasts. After stimulation with IL-2 and PMA/mitogen, the T8+ subset was shown to be the main producer of perforin, SE 1, and SE 2. Low levels of all three mRNAs, however, were also detected in the T4+ subset. The induction of all three mRNAs by either IL-2 or PMA/mitogen was partially blocked by the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporin A (CsA), but not by the biologically inactive analogue cyclosporin H. Together, these results point to some similarities and differences with upregulation of granule mediator mRNAs relative to lymphokine mRNAs. Both sets of genes require two signals for their induction by mitogens. In contrast to lymphokines, there is a strong response of granule mRNAs to IL-2, and the induction of these transcripts is only partially blocked by CsA.