An enzymatic assay for herpes virus simplex type 1 thymidine kinase (HSV-TK) that was sensitive enough to quantitate intracellular levels of enzyme transiently expressed after transfection of HSV-TK vectors into TK-deficient cells using the DNA-calcium phosphate coprecipitation technique is described. TK activity in extracts of transfected cells was determined by binding of [methyl-3H]thymidylate product to thin layers of polyethyleneimine (PEI)-impregnated cellulose. The assay used high-specific-activity [methyl-3H]thymidine as substrate, which required removal of anionic material on a column of PEI-cellulose to enhance the signal-to-noise ratio. The assay was linear over a wide range with respect to the amount of HSV-TK plasmid transfected or content of HSV-TK enzyme in cell extracts. To validate the assay in transient expression experiments, HSV-TK and chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) plasmids were cotransfected into NIH/3T3 tk- fibroblasts. Transient TK and CAT levels were concordant in cell extracts prepared from replicate plates of transfected cells. Normalizing the transient TK activity for CAT activity from the cotransfected "internal standard" CAT plasmid improved precision significantly, reducing the sample-to-sample coefficient of variation from 41 to 19%. CAT normalization reduced experimental variability mostly by correcting outlying results in transfection efficiency. The HSV-TK reporter gene system based on TK enzymatic assay was thus subject to experimental variation similar to that of the well-established CAT reporter function, demonstrating its utility in transient gene expression analysis.