Primary hepatocyte cultures derived from rat, rabbit, guinea pig and monkey have been treated in vitro with metabolites of di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, i.e. mono(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (MEHP), mono(5-carboxy-2-ethylpentyl)phthalate (metabolite V) and mono(2-ethyl-5-oxohexyl)phthalate (metabolite VI). In rat hepatocyte cultures MEHP and metabolite VI were equally potent in inducing peroxisome proliferation, while metabolite V was much less potent. In rat hepatocytes a 50% increase in both peroxisomal palmitoyl-CoA oxidase activity and microsomal lauric acid omega-hydroxylation activity was found after treatment with 5-15 microM MEHP. In guinea pig, rabbit and monkey hepatocyte cultures, a 50% increase in peroxisomal palmitoyl-CoA oxidase activity was found after treatment with 408-485 microM MEHP. No induction of lauric acid omega-hydroxylation activity was found. These results indicate that peroxisome proliferation can be induced by MEHP in rabbit, guinea pig and monkey hepatocytes, but that these species are at least 30-fold less sensitive to peroxisome proliferation induction than rats. The proposed mechanistic inter-relationship between induction of lauric acid omega-hydroxylation activity and peroxisome proliferation is found in rat hepatocytes, but not in hepatocytes of the other three species. Treatment of guinea pig hepatocyte cultures with MEHP resulted in an increase in triglyceride concentrations in the hepatocytes. In rat and rabbit hepatocyte cultures, triglyceride concentrations were much less altered by MEHP. In monkey hepatocytes a decrease in hepatic triglyceride concentration was found after treatment with MEHP. These effects are in agreement with in vivo effects observed before. After treatment of primary hepatocyte cultures with MEHP, high concentrations of omega- and (omega-1)-hydroxylated metabolites of MEHP were found in media from rat, rabbit and guinea pig cultures. The formation of these metabolites did not decline in time. During treatment the metabolite profile in media from rat hepatocyte cultures moved towards omega-hydroxy metabolites of MEHP. In media from monkey hepatocyte cultures the lowest concentrations of hydroxylated metabolites were determined. No major species differences were found in the potency to form oxidized MEHP metabolites, and thus no unique metabolite differences were found, which could explain the species differences in sensitivity for peroxisome proliferation.