In the present study the actual role of propionic acid in the control of fatty acid and cholesterol synthesis was investigated in isolated liver cells from fed rats maintained in the presence of near-physiological concentrations of glucose, glutamine and acetate. Using 3H2O for lipid labelling, propionate appears as an effective inhibitor of fatty acid synthesis and to a lesser extent of cholesterol synthesis, even at the lowest concentration used (0.6 mmol/l). Butyrate is a potent activator of both synthetic pathways, and the activating effect was not counteracted by propionate. Using 1-[14C]acetate, it was observed that propionate at a moderate concentration, or 1 mmol oleate/l, are both very effective inhibitors of 14C incorporation into fatty acid and cholesterol. This incorporation was drastically inhibited when propionate and oleate were present together in the incubation medium. The net utilization of acetate by rat hepatocytes was impaired by propionate, in contrast to oleate. 1-[14C]butyrate was utilized at a high rate for fatty acid synthesis, but to a lesser extent for cholesterol synthesis; both processes were unaffected by propionate. Intracellular citrate concentration was not markedly depressed by propionate, whereas it was strongly elevated by butyrate. In conclusion, propionate may represent an effective inhibitor of lipid synthesis when acetate is a major source of acetyl-CoA, a situation which is encountered with diets rich in readily-fermentable fibres. The present findings also suggest that propionate may be effective at concentrations close to values measured in vivo in the portal vein.