mRNA levels of the ob gene product, leptin, were investigated by quantitative competitive RT-PCR in a mouse cell line (3T3-L1) which can be induced to differentiate into adipocytes. During conversion to fat cells, the level of leptin mRNA increased several-fold and in parallel to that for typical adipocyte markers like lipoprotein lipase, adipsin and glycerophosphate dehydrogenase. Leptin transcription, however, did not correlate with the size of the adipocytes measured as total triglycerides. On the other hand, mRNA levels for leptin in fully differentiated adipocytes were increased 2-3 fold by insulin. In contrast, free fatty acids exerted a concentration-dependent inhibition of leptin transcription while the corticosteroid dexamethasone and an elevation of intracellular cAMP displayed only marginal inhibitory effects on leptin mRNA levels.