In spite of the importance of IGF-I for growth and development, knowledge about regulation of its production in submammalian species is rather limited. In order to create a tool for investigation of direct regulatory effects on the expression of IGF-I in bony fish liver, a primary cell culture of hepatocytes from Oreochromis mossambicus, the tilapia, was established. The cells were viable for up to 3 days and IGF-I mRNA synthesis was detected by northern blot and semiquantitative reverse transcriptase (RT)-PCR. Northern blot analysis of the primary cultured hepatocytes revealed four different IGF-I transcripts, 0.5, 1.9, 3.9 and 6.0 kb in size, which were identical to those in liver tissue. However, the expression rate was weaker than that in liver. The direct effects of recombinant tilapia (rt) growth hormone (GH) and salmon (s) IGF-I on the expression of IGF-I in primary cultured hepatocytes were investigated in time-course and dose-response experiments. In untreated cultures, IGF-I mRNA decreased with time. Hepatocytes treated with 100 nM rtGH resulted in a pronounced stimulation of IGF-I mRNA expression throughout the experiment. Treatment with rtGH in concentrations ranging from 0.1 nM to 1 microM caused a clear dose-dependent increase in the amount of IGF-I mRNA. Significant stimulation was obtained even with 0.1 nM, reaching a plateau with 10 nM. Neither significant inhibitory nor stimulatory effects were detected by adding sIGF-I from 0.1 nM to 1 microM to the hepataocytes. Our results indicate that the established primary cell culture of tilapia hepatocytes is a useful system in which to study direct effects of potential regulators of bony fish liver cell function.