We investigated the effects of bile acid feeding on the mRNA levels and transcriptional activity of genes involved in various facets of hepatic cell function. Rats were maintained for 10 days on standard diet supplemented with combinations of 1 and 0.4% deoxycholic acid and ursodeoxycholic acid. Significant reductions in mRNA levels for liver fatty acid binding protein, albumin, the asialoglycoprotein receptor, connexins 32 and 26, and cytochromes P-450IIB1 and P-450IIE1 were associated with 1% deoxycholic acid feeding. Conversely, the 1% deoxycholic acid-fed animals exhibited increased mRNA levels for cholesterol 7 alpha-hydroxylase, 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-CoA reductase, multidrug resistance, procollagens, extracellular matrix, protooncogenes, tumor suppressors, and cyclins. The 0.4% deoxycholic acid-fed animals exhibited increased mRNA levels for c-jun, H-ras, p53, cyclins D1 and D3, fibronectin, and procollagens alpha 1(I) and alpha 1(III). Transcriptional rate changes could not account for the observed changes in steady-state mRNA levels. Ursodeoxycholic acid feeding had no significant effect on gene expression and almost completely inhibited the changes associated with 1% deoxycholic acid when coadministered. The results indicate that dietary ingestion of deoxycholic acid profoundly affects hepatic gene expression in the rat, and regulation occurs primarily at the posttranscriptional level.