In the Syrian hamster, neonatal diethylstilbestrol (DES) treatment and then postpubertal estrogen stimulation induces hyperplasia plus apoptosis (preneoplastic responses) and ultimately neoplasia in the endometrial epithelial cell compartment. As part of a project to investigate the molecular and cellular mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon, expression of several proto-oncogenes (c-jun, c-fos, c-myc, bax, bcl-2 and bcl-x) was compared in estrogen-stimulated uteri from control versus neonatally DES- treated hamsters. According to Northern blot analysis of total uterine RNA, levels of the 3.2-kb c-jun and 2.4-kb c-myc transcripts were not altered by neonatal DES treatment. However, the 1.0 kb bax and 2.7 kb bcl-x transcript levels were significantly increased in the neonatally DES-exposed uteri. According to immunohistochemical analysis of paraformaldehyde-fixed and paraffin-embedded tissue sections, levels of c-Jun, c-Fos, c-Myc, Bax, and Bcl-x proteins were enhanced dramatically in both the luminal and glandular epithelial cells of neonatally DES-exposed uteri. In contrast, the immunostaining signal for Bcl-2 protein was decreased consistently in the epithelial cells of neonatally DES-exposed uteri. In conclusion, neonatal DES treatment induced persistent and epithelial cell-specific imbalances in the estrogen-regulated uterine expression of c-jun, c-fos, c-myc, bax, bcl-2, and bcl-x proto-oncogenes. These imbalances likely play a role in the molecular mechanism by which neonatal DES treatment induces altered estrogen responsiveness including hyperplasia, apoptosis, and ultimately neoplasia in the epithelial compartment of the hamster uterus.