Hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL) is the rate-limiting enzyme in lipolysis. The activity of HSL is thought to be primarily regulated by phosphorylation-dephosphorylation reactions. Although FFA levels are elevated during fasting, it has been difficult to demonstrate an increase in HSL activity with fasting. The current studies were undertaken to explore directly the regulation of HSL expression in adipose tissue in the rat during fasting. Rats were fasted for periods up to 5 days and HSL activity, HSL immunoreactive protein, and HSL mRNA levels were measured both in intact epididymal adipose tissue and in isolated adipose cells. Fasting caused a progressive decline in total body weight and the weight of epididymal fat pads, whereas adipose cell size decreased approximately 50% after 2 days of fasting. Serum FFA levels approximately doubled within 1 day of fasting and remained elevated thereafter. Basal lipolysis, measured as glycerol release, did not increase until 2 days of fasting. HSL activity remained relatively unchanged until 3 days of fasting when it was increased twofold after 3-5 days of fasting. Likewise, HSL immunoreactive protein and HSL mRNA levels increased twofold after 3-5 days of fasting. Thus HSL activity appears to be regulated by pretranslational mechanisms during prolonged fasting. However, increases in FFA flux during short-term fasting appear to involve either post-translational control of HSL or the regulation of other enzymes.