We investigated the effect of an isocaloric maternal low-protein diet during pregnancy in rats on the proliferative capacity of cultured fetal hepatocytes. The potential roles of these changes on the IGF-IGF-binding protein (IGFBP) axis, and the role of insulin and glucocorticoids in liver growth retardation, were also evaluated. Pregnant Wistar rats were fed a control (C) diet (20% protein) or a low-protein (LP) diet (8%) throughout gestation. In primary culture, the DNA synthesis of hepatocytes derived from LP fetuses was decreased by approximately 30% compared with control hepatocytes (P < 0.05). In parallel, in vivo moderate protein restriction in the dam reduced the fetal liver weight and IGF-I level in fetal plasma (P < 0.01) and augmented the abundance of 29- to 32-kDa IGFBPs in fetal plasma (P < 0.01) and fetal liver (P < 0.01). By contrast, the abundance of IGF-II mRNA in liver of LP fetuses was unaffected by the LP diet. In vitro, the LP-derived hepatocytes produced less IGF-I (P < 0.01) and more 29- to 32-kDa IGFBPs (P < 0.01) than hepatocytes derived from control fetuses. These alterations still appeared after 3-4 days of culture, indicating some persistence in programming. Dexamethasone treatment of control-derived hepatocytes decreased cell proliferation (54 +/- 2.3%, P < 0.01) and stimulated 29- to 32-kDa IGFBPs, whereas insulin promoted fetal hepatocyte growth (127 +/- 5.5%, P < 0.01) and inhibited 29- to 32-kDa IGFBPs. These results show that liver growth and cell proliferation in association with IGF-I and IGFBP levels are affected in utero by fetal undernutrition. It also suggests that glucocorticoids and insulin may modulate these effects.