The mechanisms responsible for ethanol-associated inhibition of liver regeneration are poorly understood but may involve the modulation of protooncogene expression. To test this hypothesis, the steadystate messenger RNA levels of several protooncogenes involved in cellular proliferation were measured in livers obtained from ethanol-fed rats and isocalorically maintained controls before and during surgically-induced liver regeneration. Regeneration was significantly inhibited in ethanol-fed rats as evidenced by delayed induction of ornithine decarboxylase activity and reduced thymidine incorporation, mitotic index, and restoration of liver mass after partial hepatectomy. As previously reported, partial hepatectomy induced the time-dependent expression of mRNA for c-fos, c-myc, and c-Ha-ras. However, the transcript levels of these protooncogenes were indistinguishable in ethanol and control livers at various time points between 0-72 hours after partial hepatectomy. Although regeneration after partial hepatectomy is significantly delayed in ethanol-fed rats, the transcription of certain protooncogenes, which encode for both DNA-binding and signal-transducing proteins, appears to proceed normally. Consequently, ethanol-associated impairment of liver regeneration cannot be explained by altered transcription of these protooncogenes. The results suggest that either the expression of these protooncogenes alone may not be sufficient to trigger liver regeneration or that ethanol inhibits protooncogenemediated events at posttranscriptional levels.