Hemodynamic load is a primary regulator of cardiac mass. A potential proximal event in this regulatory pathway is thought to be the induction of immediate early genes, and markers of this process include the re-expression of genes for fetal sarcomeric proteins and the ventricular expression of atrial natriuretic factor (ANF). Previous in vivo models which have examined these questions have often neither quantified myocardial loading nor accounted for covariables which may affect gene expression such as the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, the sympathetic nervous system, or baroreceptors. Thus, whether load alone is sufficient to induce immediate early genes, which may ultimately result in cardiac hypertrophy, remains unknown. In the present study two models of right ventricular (RV) pressure overload were created by partially occluding the pulmonary artery (PA), either with a balloon catheter for 1 or 4 h, or with a surgically placed PA band for 12, 24, or 48 h. Serum catecholamine concentrations were determined in a subset of RV pressure overload cats at basal state, after 5 min of balloon inflation, and after 1 h of balloon inflation to examine the effects of this systemic trophic factor on IEG induction. Northern blot analysis for c-fos, egr-1, alpha-skeletal actin, and ANF from paired RV and left ventricular (LV) RNA allowed the effect of load (selectively increased in the RV) to be separated from other systemic variables (present in both ventricles). The relative signal intensities of the optical density of RV and LV mRNA autoradiograms were determined from northern blots, alternate lanes of which were loaded with 7.5 micrograms of total RNA from RV and LV tissue from the same cat. Partial PA occlusion caused RV systolic pressure to increase from a control value of 22 +/- 1 mmHg to 57 +/- 6 mmHg after 1 h, 59 +/- 5 mmHg after 4 h, and 58 +/- 5 mmHg after 48 h of RV pressure overload (RVPO). Serum norepinephrine and epinephrine levels at both 5 and 60 min of RVPO were not significantly different from basal levels. The RV/LV ratios of mRNA for both egr-1 and c-fos were equal in control and 48 h PA banded animals, but were increased in the 1 and 4 h balloon RVPO cats. The RV/LV ratio of mRNA for alpha-skeletal actin was equal in the basal state and did not increase after 12, 24, or 48 h of RVPO. After 48 h of RVPO, total RNA was increased in the RV compared with the LV (1.9 +/- 0.1 v 1.1 +/- 0.1 micrograms/g tissue, P < 0.05). ANF expression was present in the RV after 48 h of RVPO, but absent in same-animal LV and all control ventricles. Thus, while increased load alone did not alter the expression of alpha-skeletal actin, it was sufficient both to induce increased expression of two distinct classes of immediate early genes, as well as ANF, and to increase total RNA, indicating hypertrophic growth initiation.