Expression of P-glycoprotein (P-gp), the product of multidrug resistance gene(s), was investigated in primary cultures of normal adult rat hepatocytes. Levels of P-gp mRNAs determined by Northern blotting and of P-gp measured by immunoblotting increased in parallel with time in culture. As in normal liver, P-gp was found to be localized on the membrane of bile canaliculus-like structures. This increased expression of P-gp was associated with decreased intracellular retention of doxorubicin, which could be restored by compounds such as verapamil and cyclosporin; doxorubicin (and also vincristine) was more cytotoxic to early than to late cultures. As in preneoplastic and neoplastic liver, overexpression of P-gp in cultured hepatocytes was associated with differential changes in drug-metabolizing enzymes, including increased glutathione S-transferase 7-7. Functional P-gp over-expression was observed in the absence of xenobiotic exposure or cell division; it could be linked to cellular stress occurring during cell isolation and plating. Increased expression of P-gp was blocked by actinomycin D, indicating its dependence on increased transcription, while cycloheximide led to a superinduction suggesting negative regulation by a protein factor.