The role of ferritin in lipocyte activation is unknown. This study examined the effect of rat liver ferritin (RLF), human recombinant H-ferritin (HrHF), human recombinant L-ferritin (HrLF), apo-ferritin (apo-RLF), and hemin on lipocyte activation. Lipocytes were cultured on uncoated plastic and were incubated with these agents for 7 days, at concentrations ranging from 10(-14) to 10(-7) M (0.5 to 50 microM for hemin). Collagen/noncollagen protein production and lipocyte proliferation were determined by [3H]proline and [3H]thymidine incorporation, respectively, and the expression of alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA) and desmin was determined by Western blot. RLF, at concentrations ranging from 10(-10) to 10(-7) M, decreased alpha-SMA expression by 65-88%. Apo-RLF, HrHF, and HrLF decreased alpha-SMA by 17-45% at 10(-7) and 10(-8) M. Hemin (10 or 50 microM) inhibited alpha-SMA by 37 and 54%, respectively. Desmin expression was not altered by ferritin or hemin. Collagen and noncollagen protein production were not altered by either RLF or apo-RLF. Lipocyte proliferation was decreased by 54, 32, and 40%, by 10(-7) M RLF, HrHF, and HrLF, respectively, whereas apo-RLF had no effect. Thus RLF inhibited lipocyte alpha-SMA expression, which may be due to an effect of sequestered iron, since neither apo-RLF, HrHF, nor HrLF had a potent effect on alpha-SMA expression and all are essentially iron-free. The inhibitory effect of iron-loaded RLF on alpha-SMA expression suggests that tissue ferritin does not initiate lipocyte activation in iron overload, but rather may have a suppressive action on this process.