We have studied the expression of oncogene-encoded mRNAs in a rat model of colon cancer. In this model, rats are intrarectally administered several low doses of the direct-acting carcinogen, N-methyl-N-nitrosourea (MNU). Tumors, predominantly adenomas, develop 5-7 months following administration of the carcinogen, and many of these progress to carcinomas. Upon assaying the steady-state levels of oncogene-encoded transcripts in normal rat colon, we found that fos and N-myc are highly expressed; H-ras, K-ras, myc, myb, and neu messages are present at lower levels; and N-ras, abl, and raf mRNAs are absent. When we compared transcript levels in rat tumors to those in normal colons from the same animal, we observed a 2-4 fold increase in both myc- and H-ras-encoded mRNAs and a 2-7 fold increase in myb message, but no change in expression of any of the 7 other genes. To test whether this increased expression is related to tumor production or is simply a result of the more rapid cellular turnover observed in tumor tissue, the level of oncogene-encoded transcripts was assayed in colonic mucosae of rats given two treatments known to enhance cell turnover and DNA synthesis in the colon. Neither acute application of MNU nor a diet containing 1% cholic acid caused any change in the level of oncogene-encoded mRNAs in rat colons, thus suggesting that the increased abundance of myc, myb, and H-ras messages in tumors is associated with tumor formation. The enhancement of expression of these genes in adenomas, as well as in carcinomas, further suggests that these alterations occur relatively early during the tumorigenic process.