Apolipoprotein (apo) E is a predominant protein in developing mammalian brain and in damaged peripheral nerve. Of particular interest is the observation that astrocytes in the central nervous system cease to produce apoE after nerve damage, whereas an increase in apoE production results after peripheral nerve injury. Differences in the response to injury with regard to the production of apoE may be related to dissimilarities in the abilities of the central and peripheral nervous systems to regenerate. As there are few data concerning the regulation of apoE gene expression in extrahepatic tissues, we employed a human astrocytoma cell line (CCF-STTG1) as a model to study apoE production in astrocytes. CCF-STTG1 cells secreted apoE constitutively in serum-free media. Cholesterol added to the media as cholesterol:phospholipid liposomes (2-100 micrograms/ml) or as human plasma LDL increased the amount of apoE secreted into the media, but had little or no effect on the relative abundance of apoE mRNA. By contrast, the commercially available triglyceride-phospholipid emulsion Intralipid added at dilutions of 1:50 to 1:500 caused a total inhibition of apoE secretion by the cells, but again, little change was noted in the relative abundance of apoE mRNA. Insulin (5 micrograms/ml) caused a 45-55% reduction in the amount of apoE secreted by the astrocytoma cells. Glucagon (5 micrograms/ml), on the other hand, did not increase apoE secretion, and apoE mRNA concentrations were not affected by either hormone treatment. ApoE was secreted from the astrocytoma cells associated with particles of plasma VLDL to IDL and HDL size. After feeding the cells with 20 micrograms/ml cholesterol as cholesterol:phospholipid liposomes, an increased proportion of apoE was secreted associated with the larger VLDL to IDL size particles, with a concomitant decrease in the proportion associated with the smaller HDL-size particles. When cells were incubated with 5 micrograms/ml insulin, most of the apoE was associated with the HDL-size particles. When cholesterol:phospholipid liposomes were added in the presence of insulin virtually all of the secreted apoE was found associated with the VLDL to IDL size particles. In summary, the regulation of apoE production in CCF-STTG1 cells in many respects resembles that of other cells, including hepatocytes. However, it is clear that there remain to be identified cell specific factors which regulate apoE production in astrocytes. The CCF-STTG1 cell line promises to provide a suitable model to investigate these questions.