The phenotype of the proliferating cells during adrenocortical growth has remained controversial although glomerulosa, fasciculata and intermediate zone cells have all been considered possible candidates. This was due in part to the inability to identify specific adrenocortical cell types in comparing different types of growth. In the present studies, using immunocytochemical localization of cytochrome P450 aldosterone synthase (P450aldo) and cytochrome P450 11β-hydroxylase (P45011β) to identify adrenocortical cell phenotypes as well as Ki-67 to label proliferating cells, we have investigated the phenotype of the proliferating cells in the compensatory adrenal growth response to unilateral adrenalectomy. Between 24 and 96 hrs after unilateral adrenalectomy, most Ki-67(+) nuclei were found in the outermost region of the fasciculata, as defined by P45011β immunoreactive cells. Few Ki-67(+) nuclei were found in the glomerulosa, defined by P450aldo cells or in the z. intermedia, identified by the absence of both P450aldo and P45011β. To test which cell type is activated by unilateral adrenalectomy, we altered the phenotypic configuration of the adrenal cortex; rats were placed on a low Na+ diet for three weeks, resulting in a marked expansion of the number of P450aldo(+) cells. An abundance of proliferating cells was identified primarily in the expanded glomerulosa, but not in the intermedia or fasciculata. In contrast, the proliferation associated with compensatory growth in these low Na+ rats, was localized primarily in the outer P45011β(+) zone. These findings suggest that the phenotype of the proliferating cell is specific to the growth promoting stimulus.