Stimulation of myogenic differentiation by the insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) has been established for many years, but our attempts to elucidate the mechanism of that stimulation have been successful only in eliminating some likely possibilities. The recent discovery of a family of muscle determination genes has opened a new approach to this question, allowing specific focus on those genes that might play central roles in controlling myogenesis. We now report that IGF-I stimulates terminal myogenic differentiation in L6A1 cells by inducing a large increase in expression of the myogenin gene. This conclusion is supported by the following observations. 1) Myogenin mRNA is elevated by IGF-I, with a concentration dependency that parallels the stimulation of differentiation, including a decrease in stimulation at higher concentrations. 2) The time course of elevation of myogenin mRNA is consistent with its acting as an intermediate in the signalling pathway between occupancy of the IGF-I receptor and induction of expression of muscle-specific genes. 3) Inhibitors of myogenesis also inhibit elevation of myogenin mRNA in response to IGF-I. 4) An antisense oligonucleotide to the N-terminus of myogenin prevents the stimulation of differentiation by IGF-I and IGF-II, but has no effect on other actions of IGF-I on myoblasts. MyoD has been reported not to be expressed in L6 cells, and the expression of myf-5 and herculin/myf-6/MRF4 is reportedly low or undetectable. Thus, the stimulation of differentiation by IGF-I can be attributed largely, if not entirely, to increased expression of the myogenin gene. However, the relatively long time period between addition of the IGFs and elevation of myogenin mRNA as well as the inhibition of this process by several inhibitors indicate that increased myogenin mRNA levels are not a simple direct result of occupation of the IGF-I receptor.