The AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is believed to protect cells against environmental stress (e.g. heat shock) by switching off biosynthetic pathways, the key signal being elevation of AMP. Identification of novel targets for the kinase cascade would be facilitated by development of a specific agent for activating the kinase in intact cells. Incubation of rat hepatocytes with 5-aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide ribonucleoside (AICAR) results in accumulation of the monophosphorylated derivative (5-aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide ribonucleoside; ZMP) within the cell. ZMP mimics both activating effects of AMP on AMPK, i.e. direct allosteric activation and promotion of phosphorylation by AMPK kinase. Unlike existing methods for activating AMPK in intact cells (e.g. fructose, heat shock), AICAR does not perturb the cellular contents of ATP, ADP or AMP. Incubation of hepatocytes with AICAR activates AMPK due to increased phosphorylation, causes phosphorylation and inactivation of a known target for AMPK (3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-CoA reductase), and almost total cessation of two of the known target pathways, i.e. fatty acid and sterol synthesis. Incubation of isolated adipocytes with AICAR antagonizes isoprenaline-induced lipolysis. This provides direct evidence that the inhibition by AMPK of activation of hormone-sensitive lipase by cyclic-AMP-dependent protein kinase, previously demonstrated in cell-free assays, also operates in intact cells. AICAR should be a useful tool for identifying new target pathways and processes regulated by the protein kinase cascade.