Obesity is a disorder of energy balance, indicating a chronic disequilibrium between energy intake and expenditure. Recently, the mouse ob gene, and subsequently its human and rat homologues, have been cloned. The ob gene product, leptin, is expressed exclusively in adipose tissue, and appears to be a signalling factor regulating body-weight homeostasis and energy balance. Because the level of ob gene expression might indicate the size of the adipose depot, we suggest that it is regulated by factors modulating adipose tissue size. Here we show that ob gene exhibits diurnal variation, increasing during the night, after rats start eating. This variation was linked to changes in food intake, as fasting prevented the cyclic variation and decreased ob messenger RNA. Furthermore, refeeding fasted rats restored ob mRNA within 4 hours to levels of fed animals. A single insulin injection in fasted animals increased ob mRNA to levels of fed controls. Experiments to control glucose and insulin independently in animals, and studies in primary adipocytes, showed that insulin regulates ob gene expression directly in rats, regardless of its glucose-lowering effects. Whereas the ob gene product, leptin, has been shown to reduce food intake and increase energy expenditure, our data demonstrate that ob gene expression is increased after food ingestion in rats, perhaps through a direct action of insulin on the adipocyte.