During pregnancy, the liver undergoes metabolic adjustments directed to fulfil the needs of the mother and the growing fetus. This study was designed to verify whether relaxin, a hormone related to pregnancy, may induce histochemical and ultrastructural modifications of hepatocytes which can be related to metabolic changes. Estrogen-primed female rats were treated with relaxin (10 microg in repository vehicle) for 18 h. Additional male rats were treated with relaxin (10 microg/day in PBS) for 4 days. Appropriate vehicle-treated rats were used as controls. After fasting, the rats were killed and liver fragments were processed for light and electron microscopy and for computer-assisted morphometry of PAS-positive glycogen deposits and acid phosphatase-reactive organelles. In both sexes, the relaxin-treated rats underwent a significant decrease in the amount of glycogen in the hepatocytes as compared with the controls. These changes were accompanied by an increase in smooth endoplasmic reticulum, endocytosis vesicles and lysosomes. These findings show that relaxin promotes glycogen depletion and induces morphological changes of hepatocytes which are consistent with functional activation. It is suggested that relaxin might play an important role in hepatic metabolic adjustments occurring during pregnancy.