All-trans retinoic acid (t-RA) administration leads to complete remission in acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) patients by inducing growth arrest and differentiation of the leukemic clone. In the present study, we show that t-RA treatment dramatically induced type II transglutaminase (type II TGase) expression in cells carrying the t(15;17) translocation and expressing the PML-RARalpha product such as the APL-derived NB4 cell line and fresh leukemic cells from APL patients. This induction correlated with t-RA-induced growth arrest, granulocytic differentiation, and upregulation of the leukocyte adherence receptor beta subunit (CD18) gene expression. The increase in type II TGase was not abolished by cycloheximide treatment, suggesting that synthesis of a protein intermediate was not required for the induction. t-RA did not significantly alter the rate of growth arrest and did not stimulate differentiation and type II TGase activity in NB4.306 cells, a t-RA-resistant subclone of the NB4 cell line, or in leukemic cells derived from two patients morphologically defined as APL but lacking the t(15;17). However, in NB4.306 cells, t-RA treatment was able to increase CD18 mRNA expression in a manner similar to NB4 cells. The molecular mechanisms involved in the induction of these genes were investigated. In NB4 cells, using novel receptor-selective ligands such as 9-cis-RA, TTNPB, AM580, and SR11217, we found that RAR- and RARalpha- selective retinoids were able to induce growth arrest, granulocytic differentiation, and type II TGase, whereas the RXR-selective retinoid SR11217 was inactive. Moreover, an RAR alpha-antagonist completely inhibited the expression of type II TGase and CD18 induced by these selective retinoids in NB4 cells. In NB4.306 cells, an RARalpha- dependent signaling pathway was found involved in the modulation of CD18 expression. In addition, expression of the PML-RARalpha gene in myeloid U937 precursor cells resulted in the ability of these cells to induce type II TGase in response to t-RA. On the basis of these results we hypothesize a specific involvement of a signaling pathway involving PML-RAR alpha for the induction of growth arrest, granulocytic differentiation, and type II TGase by retinoids in APL cells.