rES (rhesus monkey embryonic stem) cells have similar characteristics to human ES (embryonic stem) cells, and might be useful as a substitute model for preclinical research. Before their clinical application, it is critical to understand the roles of factors that control the differentiation of ES cells into hepatocytes. Here, we analysed the effect of collagen gels on rES cells differentiation into hepatocytes by stepwise protocols. About 80% of DE (definitive endoderm) cells were generated from rES cells after being treated with activin A. The DE cells were then plated on to collagen gels or type I collagen-coated wells with growth factors to induce hepatocyte differentiation. In type I collagen systems, characteristics of immature hepatocytes were observed, including the expression of immature hepatic genes and the generation of 15 +/- 3% AFP (alpha fetoprotein)/CK (cytokeratin)18 double-positive cells. In collagen gel culture, differentiated cells exhibited typical hepatocyte morphology and expressed adult liver-specific genes. The mRNA expression of AFP (immature hepatic gene) was detected at day 11 but decreased at day 18. In contrast, mRNA expression of albumin (mature hepatic gene) was detected at day 11 and increased at day 18. Compared with type I collagen systems, significantly higher AFP/CK18 double-positive cells (68 +/- 7%) were produced in collagen gel culture. Furthermore, some differentiated cells acquired the hepatocytic function of glycogen storage. However, only immature hepatic genes were observed in collagen gel systems if growth factors were absent. Thus, collagen gels combined with hepatocyte-inducing growth factors efficiently promoted differentiation of hepatocytes from rES.