We have previously reported that when hepatocytes isolated from adult male rats are cultured in serum-free medium on matrigel, a reconstituted basement membrane gel, it is possible to elicit a stimulation of gene expression for both Class II cytochrome P450b/e and Class III cytochrome P450p by phenobarbital treatment (E.G. Schuetz et al., 1990 J. Biol. Chem. 265, 1188-1192). In the present study, an investigation of the requirement of protein synthesis for the rise in mRNAs for these cytochromes, pretreatment of the cells with cycloheximide prior to adding phenobarbital or "phenobarbital-like" inducers to the culture medium inhibited induction of P450b/e mRNA (46-90%), whereas the accumulation of P450p mRNA was enhanced (2- to 19-fold). Heme depletion did not appear to explain these observations because the inhibitory effects of cycloheximide on the induction of P450b/e mRNA were not overcome by supplementation of the medium with exogenous heme or with delta-aminolevulinic acid. Because Class IIIA P450s are regulated by gender as well as by phenobarbital, we examined the basal expression of P450p mRNA in cultures of hepatocytes derived from male rats and found that cycloheximide treatment was without effect. However, in cultures of hepatocytes isolated from female rats, where P450p mRNA is barely detectable, cycloheximide treatment greatly enhanced expression of P450p mRNA. As was observed in the cultured cells, the treatment of living female rats with cycloheximide also increased the amounts of P450p mRNA to levels comparable to those found in livers of untreated male rats. Analysis of Northern blots hybridized with oligonucleotides specific for P450PCN1(IIIA1) and P450PCN2(IIIA2), respectively, revealed that untreated male rat liver and cultures of hepatocytes prepared from these animals expressed readily detectable amounts of P450PCN1(IIIA1) mRNA. Such analyses confirmed that cycloheximide treatment selectively increased P450PCN1(IIIA1) mRNA in female rat liver, whereas the amount of mRNA for P450PCN2(IIIA2), a closely related male-specific family member, was unaffected. We conclude that the pathways for the induction of P450b/e and P450p by phenobarbital, and the pathways for the gender-specific basal expression of P450PCN1(IIIA1) and P450PCN2(IIIA2) are not the same and can be distinguished by their differential response to inhibition of ongoing protein synthesis.