Although hyperketonemia and/or altered growth hormone secretion caused by diabetes have been implicated in enhanced CYP2E1, 2B, 3A and 4A expression, the effect of insulin on hepatic P450 expression, in the absence of associated metabolic/hormonal alterations, remains unknown. Primary cultured rat hepatocytes have been shown (Zangar et al., Drug Metab. Dispos., 23:681, 1995) to express stable and inducible CYP2E1 mRNA and protein levels, and provide an excellent system for mechanistic examination of the effect of insulin on CYP2E1, 2B, 3A and 4A expression. Maintaining primary rat hepatocytes in culture in the absence of insulin for 48, 72, or 96 h increased CYP2E1 mRNA levels 5-, 11-, and 4-fold, respectively, relative to cells maintained in the presence of the standard concentration of 1 microM insulin. In contrast, CYP2B mRNA levels increased only approximately 2-fold in the absence of insulin, when compared with the presence of 1 microM insulin. CYP2E1 and 2B protein levels were increased 6.7- and 3.8-fold, respectively, in cells cultured for 96 h in the absence of insulin as compared with those cultured in medium containing 1 microM insulin. Concentration-response studies revealed that decreasing the concentration of insulin below 10 nM (i.e. 1 nM, 0.1 nM, no insulin) increased CYP2E1 mRNA levels 4-, 7-, and 11-fold, respectively. In contrast, no such concentration-dependence was observed for CYP2B mRNA expression. As CYP3A and 4A expression is also elevated in diabetic rats, the effects of insulin on these P450s was also examined. CYP3A mRNA levels were unaltered and CYP4A mRNA levels were decreased marginally (approximately 50%) by the absence of insulin relative to levels in cells cultured in the presence of 1 microM insulin over 96 h in culture. The results of this study provide evidence that insulin itself, in the absence of other diabetes-induced metabolic or hormonal alterations, affects CYP2E1 and 2B, but not CYP3A or 4A, expression in primary cultured rat hepatocytes. Furthermore, CYP2E1 expression is differentially regulated by insulin relative to CYP2B, 3A or 4A. This study also demonstrates that decreasing the concentration of insulin in the culture medium provides a method by which CYP2E1 levels can be increased in primary cultured hepatocytes to facilitate mechanistic studies on the regulation of CYP2E1 expression.