The effect of zinc compounds on osteoclast-like cell formation in rat marrow culture in vitro was investigated. The bone marrow cells were cultured for 7 days in alpha-minimal essential medium containing a well-known bone resorbing hormone (1, 25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 and parathyroid hormone [1-34]). Osteoclast-like cell formation was estimated by staining for tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (TRACP), a marker enzyme of osteoclasts. The presence of 1, 25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (10(-8) M) or parathyroid hormone (PTH; 10(-8) M) induced a remarkable increase in osteoclast-like multinucleated cells (MNC). These increases were clearly inhibited by the presence of zinc sulfate or zinc-chelating dipeptide (beta-alanyl-L-histidinato zinc; AHZ) in the concentration range of 10(-7) to 10(-5) M. The inhibitory effect was seen at the earlier stage of osteoclast-like MNC formation. However, zinc compounds (10(-6) M) did not have an effect on PTH (10(-8) M)-induced osteoclast-like cell formation in the presence of EGTA (5 x 10(-4) M), dibucaine (10(-5) M) or staurosporine (10(-9) M). Moreover, when osteoclasts isolated from rat femoral-diaphyseal tissues were cultured for 24 h in the presence of zinc compounds (10(-7) to 10(-5) M), the compounds did not have an effect on cell numbers or lysosomal enzymes activity (acid phosphatase and beta-glucuronidase) in the cells. The present study clearly demonstrates that zinc compounds inhibit osteoclast-like cell formation at the earlier stage with differentiation of marrow cells.