The eukaryotic facilitated glucose transporter (GT) is expressed by many cell types, with the notable exception of hepatocytes; however, GT is expressed by several hepatoma cell lines, including the well-differentiated lines Fao, Hep3B, and HepG2. We report on studies carried out to determine the aspect(s) of the transformed phenotype that might be responsible for activating GT expression. Using RNA blot analysis with probes derived from rat GT cDNA, we found that GT was expressed by rat hepatocytes under two conditions (i) in vitro, when isolated hepatocytes were placed in cell culture, and (ii) in vivo, when rats were subjected to starvation for greater than or equal to 2 days. However, GT expression was not an obligatory feature of hepatomas, since two primary hepatocellular carcinomas did not express any GT mRNA. GT expression in hepatocytes was reduced by addition of dimethyl sulfoxide or sodium butyrate to the culture medium. Since these reagents are known to promote differentiation in some cell culture systems, their effect on hepatocytes may be to maintain the GT repression normally observed in vivo. Inclusion or exclusion in the culture medium of several other agents that enhance hepatocyte viability (serum, insulin, corticosteroids, epidermal growth factor, or triiodothyronine) did not affect GT expression. It is unclear whether the two conditions that led to GT expression in hepatocytes are related by a common signaling mechanism. Possibly, both cases involve a "stress" response: in vivo, a normal physiological response to starvation; in vitro, a response to a major alteration in the cellular environment.