Carnitine palmitoyltransferase (CPT total) activity and synthesis increase in states where the insulin/glucagon ratio is low, such as starvation and diabetes [Brady & Brady (1987) Biochem. J. 246, 641-646]. However, the effect of glucagon and insulin on CPT synthesis is unknown. The present experiments were designed to determine the effect of glucagon, cAMP [8-(chlorophenylthio) cyclic AMP], and insulin + cAMP on CPT transcription and mRNA amounts over time after injection. The CPT protein that was purified, used to generate antibody, and cloned in these studies was the 68 kDa mitochondrial protein described previously [Brady & Brady (1987) Biochem. J. 246, 641-646; Brady, Feng & Brady (1988) J. Nutr. 118, 1128-1136; Brady & Brady (1989) Diabetes 38, in the press]. Saline-injected control rats exhibited a 2-fold increase in hepatic CPT transcription rate and CPT mRNA over the 5 h experiment from 09:00 to 14:00 h. The effect was most probably due to the fasting state of the rats during the day. Glucagon injection caused an 8-fold increase in transcription rate by 90 min and a 4-fold increase in CPT mRNA by 90-120 min. The cAMP effect had reached a peak by the first time point taken (15 min). Transcription rate was increased 4-fold and CPT mRNA was increased 3-fold at this time. The combination of cAMP + insulin injection did not produce any significant increase in transcription rate or CPT mRNA over the saline-injected controls. CPT mRNA and transcription rate showed a clear dose-response to glucagon injection from 0 to 150 μg/100 g body wt. Total CPT activity and immunoreactive CPT were not increased during these experiments. The data indicate that glucagon and insulin interact in control of transcription rate and amount of CPT mRNA, but that increases in CPT immunoreactive protein and activity are temporally delayed. This lag probably relates to the half-life of the CPT protein in vivo, which has been estimated as 2-7 days.