The pituitary peptide hormone prolactin (Prl) is a potent inducer of Nb2 T lymphoma cell proliferation. To analyze the early genetic response to the mitogenic signals of Prl, a cDNA library was constructed from Nb2 T cells stimulated for 4 h with Prl and the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide. Of 26 distinct clones isolated by differential screening, one clone, designated c25, exhibited extremely rapid but transient kinetics of induction by Prl and superinduction by Prl plus cycloheximide. Run-on transcription analysis indicated that c25 gene transcription was induced greater than 20-fold within 30 to 60 min of Prl stimulation. Surprisingly, DNA sequence analysis of c25 cDNA revealed that this Prl-inducible early-response gene is the rat homolog of the mouse transcription factor interferon-regulatory factor 1 (IRF-1), sharing 91% coding sequence similarity with mouse IRF-1. At the protein level, rat IRF-1 shares 97% and 92% homology with mouse IRF-1 and human IRF-1, respectively, suggesting that this molecule has been functionally conserved throughout evolution. Our studies show that the gene for IRF-1 is an immediate-early gene in Prl-stimulated T cells, which suggests that IRF-1 is a multifunctional molecule. In addition to its role in regulating growth-inhibitory interferon genes, IRF-1 may, therefore, also play a stimulatory role in cell proliferation. The gene for IRF-1 is one of the earliest genes known to be transcriptionally regulated by Prl.