Rat hepatocytes were cryopreserved optimally by freezing them at 1 degrees C/min to -80 degrees C in cryoprotectant medium containing either 20% (v/v) dimethylsulfoxide (Me2SO) and 25% (v/v) fetal calf serum in Leibowitz L15 medium (Me2SO cryoprotectant) or 25% (v/v) vitrification solution (containing Me2SO, acetamide, propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol) in Leibowitz L15 medium (VS25). The VS25 solution was superior for maintaining viability during short-term storage (24-48 hr) but was slightly toxic during longer storage periods (7 days). Although thawed cells were 40-50% viable on ice after cryopreservation, their viability fell rapidly during incubation in suspension at 37 degrees C. This decline in viability occurred more rapidly after freezing in Me2SO cryoprotectant than in VS25 and was associated with extensive intracellular damage and cell swelling. The loss in viability at 37 degrees C does not appear to be due to ice-crystal damage as it occurred in cells stored at -10 degrees C (above the freezing point of the cryoprotectants) and it may be due to temperature/osmotic shock. Both cryoprotectant media were equally efficient at preserving enzyme activities in the hepatocytes over 7 days at -80 degrees C. Cytochrome P450 and reduced glutathione content and the activities of the microsomal enzymes responsible for aminopyrine N-demethylation and epoxide hydrolysis were well maintained over 7 days storage. In contrast, the cytosolic enzymes glutathione-S-transferase and glutathione reductase were markedly labile during cryopreservation. Cytosolic enzymes may be more susceptible to ice-crystal damage, whereas the microsomal membrane may protect the enzymes which are embedded in it.