Adrenocortical regeneration after adrenal autotransplantation provides a model for the study of local autocrine/paracrine mechanisms involved in the growth and differentiation of the adrenal cortex. To study the possible involvement of some growth factors, namely basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF, FGF-2) and insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I), in cell differentiation, immunohistochemical and ultrastructural studies were carried out on adrenal autotransplants in adult male rats. To distinguish between fasciculata and glomerulosa-like cells with accuracy, tissue sections were immunostained with IZAb, which recognizes the inner zone antigen (IZAg) present in fasciculata and reticularis cells but absent from the glomerulosa, and by electron microscopy. IGF-I-treated animals exhibited a clear glomerulosa-like zone that was devoid of IZAb immunostaining. In this outer subcapsular area, ultrastructural examination showed cells containing mitochondria with irregular cristae resembling those of the fetal or immature glomerulosa cells. In contrast, no significant morphological differences were observed in bFGF-treated animals when compared with those from saline-treated controls, in both of which, IZAb immunostaining occurred in almost all adrenocortical cells, with no clear zonation or glomerulosa, as seen in the intact animal. Plasma aldosterone and corticosterone concentrations were lower in autotransplanted control animals than in intact controls, although plasma renin activities were similar. IGF-I treatment significantly increased aldosterone concentrations, whereas corticosterone and plasma renin activity were reduced. bFGF infusion further reduced plasma aldosterone, although plasma renin activity and corticosterone were unaffected. These results suggest that the two growth factors have different effects on zonal differentiation and function in the autotransplanted gland. In particular, bFGF, by reducing glomerulosa function, appears partly to replicate the actions of ACTH in normal animals. In contrast, IGF-I enhances the glomerulosa secreting phenotype and diminishes that of the fasciculata/reticularis, possibly replicating the actions of angiotensin II or a low sodium diet.