The insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) stimulate the differentiation of skeletal muscle cells. IGF binding proteins (IGFBPs), which are expressed by skeletal muscle cells, may enhance or inhibit IGF actions. To explore the role of skeletal muscle-derived IGFBPs in IGF-induced myogenesis, we compared the differentiation-inducing effects of IGF-I and des(1-3)IGF-I in rat L6E9 skeletal myoblasts. Des(1-3)IGF-I is a naturally occurring IGF-I analog with markedly reduced affinity for IGFBPs but with an affinity for the IGF-I receptor that is comparable to that for native IGF-I. We find that rat L6E9 cells produce principally IGFBP-4 and BP-6, with a minor component of IGFBP-5. Both IGFBP-4 and BP-6 accumulate during differentiation and increase further in response to IGF-I or des(1-3)IGF-I treatment. We find that an IGF-I analog with reduced affinity for IGFBPs is significantly more potent than native IGF-I in stimulating myogenesis (as assessed by myogenin messenger RNA abundance and muscle creatine kinase activity), indicating that IGFBPs expressed by skeletal muscle cells inhibit differentiation induced by IGF-I. In view of the relative abundance of IGFBP-4, its relatively high affinity for IGF-I and the low affinity of IGFBP-6 for IGF-I, it is likely that the inhibitory effect of rat skeletal muscle-derived IGFBPs on IGF-I-induced myogenesis is mediated principally by IGFBP-4.