The exposure-responses for several effects of limited exposures to diethylnitrosamine (DEN) in the livers of male Fischer 344 rats were measured and phenobarbital promotion was used to enhance expression of initiation of carcinogenesis. Five doses ranging from a cumulative total of 0.5 to 4 mmol DEN per kg body weight were given as weekly i.p. injections for 10 weeks. This was followed by 4 weeks recovery, after which the groups were maintained on either a basal diet or 0.05% phenobarbital (PB) to promote liver tumor development. All doses of DEN produced ethylation in liver DNA, which increased with dose. Indicative of toxicity, the centrilobular zone of glutamine synthetase-positive hepatocytes was reduced in relationship to exposure up to a cumulative exposure of 3 mmol/kg. The two lower exposures to DEN produced no increase in cell proliferation, whereas higher exposures resulted in marked increases, ~ 4-fold between 1.0 and 2.0 mmol/kg cumulative. At the end of the recovery period (14 weeks), hepatocellular altered foci (HAF), which expressed the placental form of glutathione S-transferase, were induced by all exposures, with an increase of ~ 4-fold between the exposures of 1.0 and 2.0 mmol/kg being the greatest. In rats maintained on basal diet or PB for 24 weeks after exposure, HAF increased further and with exposures of 2.0 mmol/kg and above, all rats developed hepatocellular carcinomas. With 1.0 mmol/kg, no liver tumor occurred in 12 rats without promotion, whereas in those given PB, two adenomas and two carcinomas were present in 12 rats. At the lowest exposure of 0.5 mmol/kg, no tumor occurred in rats on basal diet, although HAF increased ~ 7-fold. With PB promotion, only one adenoma developed in 12 rats and HAF increased another 2-fold. Thus, the findings document non-linearity for some of the effects of DEN and a near no-effect level for initiation of promotable liver neoplasms at the lowest exposure in spite of a substantial induction of HAF.