The regulation of gene expression via the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR) is believed to be critical in the effects of peroxisome proliferators on lipid metabolism and possibly in hepatocarcinogenesis. The involvement of PPAR in the peroxisome proliferator-mediated induction of fatty acid metabolizing genes such as acyl-CoA oxidase (ACO), fatty acid-binding protein (FABP), and cytochrome P450IVA1 (CYP4A1) has been clearly demonstrated. However, the induction by peroxisome proliferators of important growth regulatory genes such as c-myc has not been investigated extensively. In these studies we examined the dose-response relationships for the induction of mRNA for the PPAR-regulated and lipid metabolizing genes ACO, FABP, and CYP4A1 and compared them to the immediate early gene c-myc. Liver mRNA from rats fed various amounts of the peroxisome proliferator Wy14,643 for 13 weeks was utilized. The lipid metabolism and growth regulatory genes were induced by subchronic administration of Wy14,643 but to varying degrees and with different sensitivities. The lowest dose that resulted in a significant change in ACO and FABP expression was 10 ppm. The mRNA for CYP4A1 and c-myc was significantly affected at the lowest dose examined (5 ppm). Also, the maximal induction ranged from 10(5)-fold (CYP4A1) to less than 10-fold (FABP) relative to vehicle-treated animals. The accumulation of mRNA for ACO, FABP, and CYP4A1, but not c-myc, showed typical receptor-mediated dose-response relationships. The effects on gene expression were compared to rates of hepatic cell proliferation, a pertinent marker of tumor promotion and hepatocarcinogenesis. Surprisingly, ACO mRNA showed an excellent correlation (r2 = 0.9) while c-myc mRNA exhibited a poor correlation (r2 = 0.3) with cell proliferation in rat liver. Although the differences between the dose-response relationships of ACO and c-myc mRNA accumulation may suggest immediate early genes are not controlled by PPAR, evidence from PPARalpha null mice support this receptor in both lipid metabolism and growth regulatory genes. This study shows the complexity of responses mediated by peroxisome proliferators, with ACO being a good marker of PPAR-mediated events as well as cell proliferation, while c-myc, a known growth regulatory gene, was induced by Wy14,643 partially via PPAR but did not correlate well with cell proliferation.