In the present study we have examined the role of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI 3-kinase) in the insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I)-signaling pathways involved in differentiation and in mitogenesis in fetal rat brown adipocytes. Activation of PI 3-kinase in response to IGF-I was markedly inhibited by two PI 3-kinase inhibitors (wortmannin and LY294002) in a dose-dependent manner. IGF-I-stimulated glucose uptake was also inhibited by both compounds. The expression of adipogenic-related genes such as fatty acid synthase, malic enzyme, glycerol 3-phosphate dehydrogenase, and acetylcoenzyme A carboxylase induced by IGF-I was totally prevented in the presence of IGF-I and any of those inhibitors, resulting in a marked decrease of the cytoplasmic lipid content. Moreover, the expression of the thermogenic marker uncoupling protein induced by IGF-I was also down-regulated in the presence of wortmannin/LY294002. IGF-I-induced adipogenic- and thermogenic-related gene expression was only partly inhibited by the p70S6k inhibitor rapamycin. In addition, pretreatment of brown adipocytes with either wortmannin or LY294002, but not with rapamycin, blocked protein kinase C zeta activation by IGF-I. In contrast, IGF-I-induced fetal brown adipocyte proliferation was PI 3-kinase-independent. Our results show for the first time an essential requirement of PI 3-kinase in the IGF-I-signaling pathways leading to fetal brown adipocyte differentiation, but not leading to mitogenesis. In addition, protein kinase C zeta seems to be a signaling molecule also involved in the IGF-I differentiation pathways downstream from PI 3-kinase.