The intracellular concentration of cholesterol is regulated by the balance between endogenous synthesis and exogenous uptake. Oestrogens have been reported to be involved in the physiological regulation of cellular cholesterol content. Relevant reports have focused on long-term responses and there is a lack of information about the relationship between the timing of the oestrogen effect and the regulation of cholesterol homeostasis. The aim of this work has been to set up a systematic picture of the short-term effects induced by oestrogen on hepatic lipid metabolism in vivo and the involvement of some relevant signal transduction pathways. At intervals after oestrogen administration (30 min to 6 h), oestrogen receptor expression and changes in liver cAMP, IP3 and protein kinase C-α (PKC-α) were followed. Changes in the expression of the low density lipoprotein receptor at mRNA and protein levels, and of hydroxy-methyl-glutaryl-CoA reductase activity have been verified. At the same time, the content of hepatic cholesterol, ubiquinone and dolichol and of plasma cholesterol have been determined. Changes of rab 5 and rab 8, small GTP-binding prenylated proteins involved in the transfer of neosynthesised proteins through the cell, have been also checked. In vivo treatment with oestradiol produced no change in cyclic AMP but a rapid increase in IP3, increased PKC-α localisation on the membranes and enhanced expression of the low density lipoprotein receptor in the liver occurred. PKC inhibition completely prevented any increase in low density lipoprotein receptor mRNA in isolated and perfused rat liver. Early changes of ubiquinone and dolichol content and a later reduction in hepatic hydroxy-methyl-glutaryl-CoA reductase activity and plasma cholesterol content were also detectable. A functional role of the IP3 -protein kinase C-α pathway in the induction of the low density lipoprotein receptor is suggested. Experimental Physiology (2001) 86.1, 39-45.