Caloric restriction causes a generalized decrease in growth rate and has been repeatedly associated with an inhibitory effect on cancer development in several systems. In contrast, exposure to complete fasting followed by refeeding is a metabolic condition associated with increased cell turnover in different organs, including the liver. The present study examines whether such condition is able to sustain the induction of initiated hepatocytes following a subnecrogenic dose of diethylnitrosamine (DENA). Male Fisher-344 rats were fasted for 4 days and 1 day after refeeding they were given a single dose of DENA (20 or 200 mg/kg body wt, i.p.). Negative and positive control groups were fed ad libitum and injected with 20 and 200 mg/kg of DENA, respectively. One week later all animals were subjected to the resistant hepatocyte model for the selection of hepatocyte nodules and they were killed 2 weeks thereafter. Results indicated the presence of gamma-glutamyltransferase (GGT) positive foci and nodules (38 +/- 7/cm2) in rats regularly fed and given 200 mg/kg of DENA, while virtually no focal lesions (< 1/cm2) were found in the group receiving 20 mg/kg of DENA and fed throughout the experiment. However, a significant number of GGT positive foci/nodules (14 +/- 7) also developed in rats exposed to fasting and given 20 mg/kg of DENA 24 h after refeeding. No evidence of hepatocellular necrosis was found in the latter group following DENA administration. No effect of fasting was observed when rats received 200 mg/kg of DENA. It is concluded that fasting/refeeding provides conditions which are able to sustain initiation in rat liver by a subnecrogenic dose of a carcinogen. These findings are in contrast with the commonly reported inhibitory effect of chronic food restriction on various stages of carcinogenesis, including initiation.