Chronic ethanol exposure causes marked induction of the ethanol-inducible cytochrome P450 (CYP) 2E1 isozyme in the centrilobular liver region, where alcoholic damage commonly is initiated. In contrast to most other CYP forms, which are ligand-activated at the transcriptional level, ethanol induction of CYP2E1 has been found to be post-translational. However, transcriptional activation of the CYP2E1 gene was recently described in fed animals maintained at very high ethanol levels. To further evaluate mechanisms of ethanol-mediated CYP2E1 induction we compared the effect of short-term heavy-ethanol treatment and fasting on CYP2E1 mRNA, protein and catalytic activity. High blood-ethanol levels (20-70 mM) were maintained for 3 days by regular alcohol intubations to fed or fasted rats. During this period, the amount of liver CYP2E1 apoprotein increased a maximum of 20-fold and catalytic activity 16-fold, both in fed and fasted animals, whereas starvation alone caused only a 4- to 5-fold increase. By comparison, the amount of CYP2E1 mRNA, as assayed both by Northern blot and slot blot, was significantly increased (5- to 6-fold) by ethanol only in fasted rats; this increase was smaller than that observed after fasting alone (8- to 9-fold). Analysis of cell lysates isolated from the periportal and perivenous region revealed that the increase in CYP2E1 mRNA by fasting occurred in the perivenous region. Thus no evidence was obtained for an increased pretranslational CYP2E1 gene expression as a consequence of the continuous presence of ethanol at intoxicating levels for 3 days. CYP2E1 mRNA elevation seems to be strongly associated with starvation while alcohol treatment increases the amount of enzyme, primarily by ligand-dependent stabilization of the synthesized protein. Our results indicate that transcriptional activation of CYP2E1 requires the long-term presence of highly intoxicating ethanol levels. It is conceivable that such activation occurs via indirect physiological responses related to those triggered by starvation.