To study the effect of steroid hormones on bile acid synthesis by cultured rat hepatocytes, cells were incubated with various amounts of these compounds during 72 h and conversion of [4-14C]cholesterol into bile acids was measured. Bile acid synthesis was stimulated in a dose-dependent way by glucocorticoids, but not by sex steroid hormones, pregnenolone or the mineralocorticoid aldosterone in concentrations up to 10 microM. Dexamethasone proved to be the most efficacious inducer, giving 3-fold and 7-fold increases in bile acid synthesis during the second and third 24 h incubation periods respectively, at a concentration of 50 nM. Mass production of bile acids as measured by g.l.c. during the second day of culture (28-52 h) was 2.2-fold enhanced by 1 microM-dexamethasone. No change in the ratio of bile acids produced was observed during this period in the presence of dexamethasone. Conversion of [4-14C]7 alpha-hydroxycholesterol, an intermediate of the bile acid pathway, to bile acids was not affected by dexamethasone. Measurement of cholesterol 7 alpha-hydroxylase activity in homogenates of hepatocytes, incubated with 1 microM-dexamethasone, showed 10-fold and 90-fold increases after 48 and 72 h respectively, as compared with control cells. As with bile acid synthesis from [14C]cholesterol, no change in enzyme activity was found in hepatocytes cultured in the presence of 10 microM steroid hormones other than glucocorticoids. Addition of inhibitors of protein and mRNA synthesis lowered bile acid production and cholesterol 7 alpha-hydroxylase activity and prevented the rise of both parameters with dexamethasone, suggesting regulation at the mRNA level. We conclude that glucocorticoids regulate bile acid synthesis in rat hepatocytes by induction of enzyme activity of cholesterol 7 alpha-hydroxylase.

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