We showed previously that the abundance of serum albumin mRNA is decreased in H4-II-E rat hepatoma cells limited for a single essential amino acid (phenylalanine, methionine, leucine, or tryptophan). To define the specificity of this phenomenon, we examined the effect of amino acid limitation on the abundance of mRNAs for 19 genes in the H4-II-E cells. These genes included six genes whose expression is either completely liver-specific or highly enriched in the liver compared with other tissues [albumin, transthyretin (TTR), transferrin, carbamyl phosphate synthetase-I, urate oxidase, class I alcohol dehydrogenase], as well as a number of ubiquitously expressed ''housekeeping'' genes. The results indicated that the 19 genes could be divided into three classes based on their response to amino acid limitation. Class I genes (the six liver-specific genes and alpha-tubulin) exhibit decreased expression in response to amino acid limitation. The expression of class II genes [beta(2)- microglobulin, hypoxanthine-guanine phosphoribosyl transferase (HPRT), H-ferritin, ubiquitin (UbB), insulin-like growth factor binding protein-4, HNF-1 alpha] is not significantly affected by amino acid limitation. Class III genes [gadd153, beta-actin, ubiquitin (UbC), phosphoglycerate kinase-1, C/EBP alpha, C/EBP beta] exhibit increased expression in response to amino acid limitation. Thus, specific inductive as well as repressive effects on gene expression are quite common in amino acid-limited cells. The observation that all six genes whose expression is liver-specific exhibited decreased expression in amino acid-limited cells suggests a common mode of regulation of these genes by amino acid availability. The strong induction by amino acid limitation of the C/EBP inhibitor gadd153 is of interest in this regard, as increased levels of gadd153 could interfere with C/EBP, which is required for high expression of most liver-specific genes. To investigate further the molecular mechanism for the decrease in albumin mRNA abundance, albumin nuclear transcript levels were quantified in control and tryptophan-limited cells. Tryptophan limitation caused a decrease in albumin nuclear transcript abundance, and this decrease preceded the decrease in albumin mRNA, suggesting that the decrease in albumin mRNA was caused at least partly by a decrease in albumin gene transcription. Additional experiments with actinomycin D indicated that albumin mRNA was also destabilized in the tryptophan-limited cells. Thus, the overall results indicate that the decrease in albumin mRNA in the tryptophan-limited cells is caused by a specific decrease in albumin nuclear transcript abundance and destabilization of albumin mRNA.