PTH is a potent regulator of osteoblast gene expression, yet the nuclear events that mediate PTH action are poorly understood. We were interested in identifying immediate early genes which may regulate PTH-altered gene expression in the osteoblast. Therefore, we examined the effects of PTH on c-fos and c-jun gene expression in a rat osteoblastic cell line (UMR 106-01). Under control conditions, c-fos and c-jun mRNAs were present at low basal levels. After PTH treatment, c-fos mRNA abundance dramatically increased, with a maximal and transient response at 30 min. PTH also stimulated an increase in c-jun mRNA, but in a biphasic manner, with maximal levels at 30 min and 2 h. These responses were dose dependent, not altered by cotreatment with the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide, and preceded PTH-induced expression of matrix metallo-proteinase-1 mRNA. Nuclear run-on assays demonstrated an increased rate of c-fos and c-jun transcription after PTH exposure. To determine the signal transduction pathways involved, second messenger analogs were tested for their ability to mimic the effects of PTH. 8-Bromo-cAMP and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) caused increases in the abundance of c-fos and c-jun transcripts. Ionomycin had no effect on the expression of these genes. Pretreatment of the cells with PMA resulted in a decrease in basal c-jun expression, but did not alter the PTH-mediated increase in c-fos, c-jun, or matrix metalloproteinase-1 mRNAs. c-jun mRNA levels via a mechanism that induces transcription of these genes, involves activation of protein kinase-A, and is not altered by PMA pretreatment. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the immediate early genes, c-fos and c-jun, may mediate certain PTH-induced alterations in osteoblast gene expression.