It is widely recognized that stress plays an important role in directing the adaptive adjustment of an organism to changing environments. However, very little is known about the evolution of mechanisms that promote stress-induced variation. Adaptive transcriptional responses have been implicated in the evolution of tolerance to natural and anthropogenic stressors in the environment. Recent technological advances in transcriptomics provide a mechanistic understanding of biological pathways or processes involved in stress-induced phenotypic change. Furthermore, these studies are (semi) quantitative and provide insight into the reaction norms of identified target genes in response to specific stressors. We argue that plasticity in gene expression reaction norms may be important in the evolution of stress tolerance and adaptation to environmental stress. This review highlights the consequences of transcriptional plasticity of stress responses within a single generation and concludes that gene promoters containing a TATA box are more capable of rapid and variable responses than TATA-less genes. In addition, the consequences of plastic transcriptional responses to stress over multiple generations are discussed. Based on examples from the literature, we show that constitutive over expression of specific stress response genes results in stress adapted phenotypes. However, organisms with an innate capacity to buffer stress display plastic transcriptional responses. Finally, we call for an improved integration of the concept of phenotypic plasticity with studies that focus on the regulation of transcription. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010.