The protein product of the ras oncogene, Ha-ras (p21), is thought to be an important regulator of cell growth. The cytoplasmic relocalization of p21 in the cell during the cell cycle suggests a transient signaling role for this protein in association with its signal transduction function. Because of the importance of this role we examined spatial patterns in vivo of p21 expression at the protein and mRNA levels in hepatocytes during compensatory growth in rat liver following partial hepatectomy. A low level of p21 was immunolocalized on the cytoplasmic membrane of nonregenerating hepatocytes. The level of hepatic p21 increased significantly and without spatial restriction within the liver from 36 to 60 hr after partial hepatectomy (PH). p21 was localized in the cytoplasm of dividing hepatocytes and on the hepatic cytoplasmic membrane. The elevated p21 level decreased and was found mainly on hepatocyte plasma membranes by 96 hr after PH. Immunogold electron microscopy showed p21 localized over mitochondrial membranes and nuclei in nondividing regenerating hepatocytes. Approximately 50% of nonregenerating hepatocytes show nuclear localization of p21. This percentage changes with time following PH. The decrease in nuclear localization was accompanied with an increase in the low number of hepatocytes which demonstrated cytoplasmic localization in nondividing hepatocytes in regenerating liver. Flow cytometric analysis revealed a significant increase of p21 at 36 hr after PH which was 12 hr after the initial induction of ras mRNA. ras mRNA level increased 1.5-fold at 24 hr after PH and a maximum twofold induction was observed at 48 hr. Cell-cycle analysis of regenerating hepatocytes indicated a synchronized first peak of cell division 36-40 hr after PH. Dual parameter flow cytometry revealed that the level of p21 in hepatocytes in S phase and G2/M phase of the cell cycle was significantly higher than that in G0/G1 phase during regeneration. These findings suggest that p21 is important for the progression of regenerating hepatocytes to S phase and then to G2/M phase.