Enantioselectivity in toxicology and the health risk of chiral xenobiotics have become frontier topics interfacing chemistry and toxicology. Our previous results showed that cis-bifenthrin (cis-BF) induced cytotoxicity and apoptosis in vitro in an enantioselective manner. However, the exact molecular mechanisms of synthetic pyrethroid-induced enantioselective apoptosis and cytotoxicity have so far received limited research attention. In the present study, the expression patterns of different genes encoding heat shock protein and antioxidant enzymes were investigated by real-time quantitative PCR in rat adrenal pheochromocytoma (PC12) cells after exposure to cis-BF and its enantiomers. The results showed that exposure to 1S-cis-BF resulted in increased transcription of HSP90, HSP70, HSP60, Cu–Zn–superoxide dismutase, Mn-superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione-s-transferase at a concentration of 5 µm and above, while exposure to1R-cis-BF and rac-cis-BF exhibited these effects to lesser degrees. In addition, induction of antioxidant enzyme gene expression produced by 1S-cis-BF might occur, at least in part, through activation of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK) and extracellular regulated kinases, while increase in stress protein response produced by 1S-cis-BF might occur through the p38 MAPK signaling pathway. The results not only suggest that enantioselectivity should be considered in evaluating the ecotoxicological effects and health risk of chiral contaminants, but also will improve the understanding of molecular mechanism for chiral chemical-induced cytotoxicity. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.