The expression of hsp 27 mRNA and protein was determined in cultured human proximal tubule (HPT) cells exposed to lethal and sublethal concentrations of Cd2+ under both acute and extended conditions. Initial procedures demonstrated that HPT cells display the classic stress response following physical and chemical stress. Heat stress (42.5 degrees C for 1 hr) caused an increase in both hsp 27 mRNA and protein as well as a shift in the protein to a more phosphorylated state. Results were similar when the cells were subjected to chemical stress (exposure to 100 microM sodium arsenite for 4 hr). Acute exposure to 53 microM CdCl2 for 4 hr also resulted in an increase in hsp 27 mRNA and protein and a shift to the more phosphorylated protein isoform. Extended Cd2+ exposure involved continuous treatment with Cd2+ at both lethal and sublethal levels over a 16-day time course. The results of this treatment showed that chronic exposure to Cd2+ failed to increase either hsp 27 mRNA or protein expression in HPT cells, even at lethal Cd2+ concentrations. In fact, hsp 27 protein levels decreased as compared to controls at both lethal and sub-lethal exposure to Cd2+. These findings imply that hsp 27 expression in human proximal tubule cells may have two distinct modes depending on the nature (acute vs. chronic) of the stress.