Androgenic and estrogenic steroids enhance muscle growth in a number of species; however, the mechanism by which anabolic steroids enhance muscle growth is not known. Castrated male cattle (steers) provide a particularly good model system in which to study the effects of anabolic steroids on muscle growth because they respond dramatically to treatment with both estrogens and androgens. The goal of this study was to determine if treatment of bovine satellite cell (BSC) cultures with 17β-estradiol (E2) or trenbolone (a synthetic androgen) directly affects proliferation rate or level of mRNA for estrogen receptor (ER)-α, androgen receptor, and growth factors that have been shown to affect muscle growth (insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I, IGF binding protein (IGFBP)-3, and myostatin). BSC cultures were established from the semimembranosus muscles of steers and then treated for 48 h with various concentrations of E2 or trenbolone ranging from 0.001 to 10 nM. IGF-I mRNA levels in proliferating BSC cultures were significantly increased at 0.01 (1.9-times control values, P < 0.02) and at 0.1,1, and 10 nM E2 (2.9-, 3.5-, and 3.5-times control values, respectively, P < 0.0001). Additionally both 1 and 10 nM trenbolone increased IGF-I mRNA levels to 1.7-times control values (P < 0.02). ER-α mRNA was detectable in BSC cultures, and levels were increased (2.3-times control levels, P < 0.001) in cultures treated with 0.001 nM E2 but not in cultures treated with higher concentrations of E2. Androgen receptor mRNA levels also were increased (1.5-times control levels, P < 0.02) in cultures treated with 0.001 nM trenbolone but not by treatment with higher concentrations of trenbolone. Levels of IGFBP-3 were increased (1.4-times control values, P < 0.02) by treatment with 0.001 nM E2 but not by treatment with high concentrations of E2. Myostatin mRNA levels were not affected by any concentration of either of the steroids. Although, levels of IGF-I mRNA were 10-times greater (P < 0.02) in fused BSC cultures than in proliferating cultures, treatment of fused cultures for 48 h with 10 nM E2 increased IGF-I mRNA levels (2.5-times control levels, P < 0.02). Both E 2 and trenbolone increased 3H-thymidine incorporation rate (1.5-times control levels, P < 0.001) in BSC cultures in media containing serum from which IGFBP-3 had been removed by anti-IGFBP-3 affinity chromatography. In summary, treatment of BSC cultures with either E2 or trenbolone increased IGF-I mRNA level and proliferation rate, thus, establishing that these steroids have direct anabolic effects on cells present in the BSC culture.