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We used qualitative complementary DNA-amplified fragment length polymorphism (cDNA-AFLP) differential display analysis and real-time, quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) to identify genes in the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas, whose transcription either changes in response to exposure to a pathogenic bacterium (Vibrio tubiashii) or varies between families known to differ in sensitivity to heat stress, before and at 12 and 36 h after bacterial exposure at a temperature of 25 °C. These conditions simulate those associated with summer mortality syndrome, a poorly understood cause of massive mortalities in cultured Pacific oysters in North America, Asia and Europe. Using 32 AFLP primer pairs, we identified 92 transcript-derived fragments that are qualitatively differentially expressed. We then cloned and sequenced 14 of these fragments, designed fragment-specific primers and quantified their transcription patterns using RT-qPCR. Most of the differences in transcription patterns between stress-tolerant and stress-sensitive families were evident before bacterial exposure, and genes that responded to bacterial exposure did so in parallel between stress-sensitive and stress-tolerant families. BLAST searches of sequence databases revealed that these fragments represent genes involved in immune response as well as genes related to metabolic processes. Our data support the hypothesis that family level differences in resistance to stress in Pacific oysters are largely attributable to constitutive differences in gene transcription or ‘general vigour’ that are detectable before and maintained after infection, rather than being due to induced responses at the transcriptome level.