Chinese hamster ovary cells were incubated for 24 h in a variety of steroid hormones (testosterone, progesterone, hydrocortisone, dexamethasone, and ecdysterone) to test their effect on the subsequent heat resistance of the cells. Only the glucocorticoids, hydrocortisone and dexamethasone, consistently induced heat resistance. Heat resistance induced by hydrocortisone at 10(-6)M developed after a lag of 2-3 h and was maximal by 20 h. Resistance was expressed in both asynchronous and plateau phase cells and was maintained for several days in medium without added hormone. Incubation of cells with hydrocortisone and a 100-fold excess of progesterone (a glucocorticoid antagonist) partially inhibited the development of resistance. Prior exposure to hydrocortisone did not inhibit the subsequent development of heat induced thermotolerance. However, cells made thermotolerant by prior heat shock did not display further heat resistance with hydrocortisone treatment. There was no evidence for the induction of heat shock proteins (HSP) by these steroid hormones although the 28 kDHSP was further enhanced by combined heat and hydrocortisone. Our results indicate that heat resistance in mammalian cells may be induced by physiological concentrations of glucocorticoids and that the characteristics of this resistance are consistent with a receptor mediated event.