Our previous studies have shown a different pattern of immediate early gene and growth factor gene expression between compensatory liver regeneration occurring after cell loss/death and direct hyperplasia induced by primary mitogens. In the present study, modifications in the activation of two transcription factors, NF-kappaB and AP-1; steady-state levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) messenger RNA (mRNA); and induction of the inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) were examined in rat liver during different types of cell proliferation. Compensatory regeneration was induced in male Wistar rats by partial hepatectomy of two thirds (PH) or a necrogenic dose of CCl4 (2 mL/kg), whereas direct hyperplasia was induced by a single administration of the primary mitogens lead nitrate (LN, 100 micromol/kg), cyproterone acetate (CPA, 60 mg/kg), or nafenopin (NAF, 200 mg/kg). Liver regeneration after treatment with CCl4 was associated with an increase in steady-state levels of TNF-alpha mRNA, activation of NF-kappaB and AP-1, and induction of iNOS. A strong and prolonged activation of NF-kappaB but not of AP-1 was observed in LN-induced hyperplasia. LN also induced an increase in hepatic levels of TNF-alpha and iNOS mRNA. On the other hand, direct hyperplasia induced by two other primary mitogens, NAF and CPA, occurred in the complete absence of modifications in the hepatic levels of TNF-alpha mRNA, activation of NF-kappaB and AP-1, or induction of iNOS, although the number of hepatocytes entering S phase 18 to 24 hours after NAF was similar to that seen after PH. These results add further support to the hypothesis that cell proliferation occurring in the absence of cell loss/death may be triggered by unknown signaling pathways different from those responsible for the transition of hepatocytes from G0 to G1 after PH or cell necrosis.