Severe iodine deficiency is characterized by goiter, preferential synthesis, and secretion of T(3) in thyroids, hypothyroxinemia in plasma and tissues, normal or low plasma T(3), and slightly increased plasma TSH. We studied changes in deiodinase activities and mRNA in several tissues of rats maintained on low-iodine diets (LIDs) or LIDs supplemented with iodine (LID+I). T(4) and T(3) concentrations decreased in plasma, tissues, and thyroids of LID rats, and T(4) decreased more than T(3) (50%). The highest type 1 iodothyronine deiodinase (D1) activities were found in the thyroid, kidney, and the liver; pituitary, lung, and ovary had lower D1 activities; but the lowest levels were found in the heart and skeletal muscle. D1 activity decreased in all tissues of LID rats (10-40% of LID+I rats), except for ovary and thyroids, which D1 activity increased 2.5-fold. Maximal type 2 iodothyronine deiodinase (D2) activities were found in thyroid, brown adipose tissue, and pituitary, increasing 6.5-fold in thyroids of LID rats and about 20-fold in the whole gland. D2 always increased in response to LID, and maximal increases were found in the cerebral cortex (19-fold), thyroid, brown adipose tissue, and pituitary (6-fold). Lower D2 activities were found in the ovary, heart, and adrenal gland, which increased in LID. Type 3 iodothyronine deiodinase activity was undetectable. Thyroidal Dio1 and Dio2 mRNA increased in the LID rats, and Dio1 decreased in the lung, with no changes in mRNA expression in other tissues. Our data indicate that LID induces changes in deiodinase activities, especially in the thyroid, to counteract the low T(4) synthesis and secretion, contributing to maintain the local T(3) concentrations in the tissues with D2 activity.