The reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to amplify selected lymphokine mRNAs from phytohemagglutinin-activated leukocytes of the owl monkey (Aotus trivirgatus). Interleukin-2 (IL-2), IL-4, IL-13, and interferon-gamma were selected as lymphokine mRNAs of interest, since expression of these cytokines helps define the type of T helper lymphocyte response (i.e., TH1 versus TH2). Because sequences for these lymphokine genes were not available for the owl monkey, multiple PCR primers for each lymphokine gene were designed based on published human sequences. Various PCR primer pairs were then used in the RT-PCR to determine the conditions for optimal amplification of each owl monkey cytokine mRNA. In addition, each PCR primer pair was compared for the ability to amplify lymphokine mRNAs from other primate species, including African green (Cercopithecus aethiops), squirrel (Saimiri sciureus), and rhesus (Macaca mulatta) monkeys. The specificity and sensitivity of optimal primer pairs was also demonstrated by amplification of as little as 10 fg of each lymphokine gene in a background of 300 ng of irrelevant cDNA. Finally, partial sequences of owl monkey coding regions for IL-2, IL-13, and interferon-gamma were determined and compared for homology with their human counterparts. Together, these studies define specific and sensitive conditions for detection of lymphokine mRNA expression in the owl monkey and provide partial sequence information of the coding region for these lymphokines. This investigation should provide molecular probes to investigate the immune response against malaria and the effectiveness of malaria vaccines in the owl monkey that models this human disease.