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Stress has been shown to be a major environmental contributor to cardiovascular diseases through its effects on blood pressure variability and cardiac function. The cellular stress response is characterized by the expression of specific heat stress genes (hsps), under the transcriptional control of heat shock transcription factors (HSTFs). The levels of hsp mRNA depend on the severity of the stress, with hstf1 acting as a stress sensor. The aim of this work was to evaluate the genetic contribution of the variability in hsp expression, and to identify its putative quantitative trait loci (QTL).Twenty recombinant inbred rat strains (RIS) were studied. The animals underwent a standardized, identical 1 h immobilization stress in restraint cages, followed by 1 h of rest before sacrifice. Total RNA was extracted from the heart, kidneys and adrenals, and the mRNA levels of hsp27, hsp70, hsp84, hsp86 and hsp105 were measured. The strain distribution pattern (SDP) of hsp expression was correlated with that of 475 polymorphic markers distributed throughout the RIS genome. A polymorphism of rat hstf1 in RIS was used for its mapping in RIS.Despite an identical stress being applied to all strains, hsp expression showed up to a 12-fold gradient with little intra-strain variability, indicative of a strong genetic contribution to the trait. Heritability ranged from 50 to 77% for most hsp genes in the three target organs. The continuous SDP of stress gene expression indicated the polygenic nature of the trait. A common locus on chromosome 7 (at D7Cebrp187s3 marker) was consistently associated with all hsp expression in most of the organs [with a likelihood of odds (LOD) score of 3.0 for hsp27 expression]. We have mapped rat hstf1 on chromosome 7 at the same locus. Finally, the D4Mit19 marker was significantly associated with hsp84 expression in the heart (LOD score of 3.1).Two loci were linked with the differential expression of HSPs in response to immobilization stress in target organs of RIS. The chromosome 7 locus unveiled for all HSPs could explain up to 42% of the observed interstrain variability of hsp levels in response to stress. We propose hstf1 as a positional candidate at this locus.