Expression of the alpha, mu and pi class glutathione S-transferases (GSTs) in hepatocytes, oval cells and ductal cells derived from the livers of rats placed on a choline-deficient, ethionine-supplemented (CDE) diet for 5 weeks was investigated. An overall decrease in the expression of alpha and mu class GSTs and an over-expression of pi class GST was observed in the liver after CDE treatment as indicated by Northern blotting analysis. Massive disruption of the liver with oval cell infiltration in the sinusoids throughout the lobule occurred after 5 weeks CDE treatment. 'Duct-like' structures consisting of oval-like cells (ductal cells) with rounder nuclei and more cytoplasm than oval cells within the sinusoids were also apparent. Immunocytochemical analysis revealed that the altered expression of GST in the whole liver is attributed to a differential expression of alpha, mu and pi class GSTs in the different cell types in the liver, including hepatocytes, oval cells around the portal region and among the sinusoids, and oval-like cells (ductal cells) in the `duct-like' structures. In vitro studies using purified oval-ductal cells and hepatocyte populations confirmed the differential expression of GSTs in the varying cell populations in situ. The expression of the alpha and mu class GSTs in hepatocytes does not appear to be altered by the CDE diet. Heterogeneity in distribution of pi class GST was observed in the hepatocyte population, some hepatocytes were stained strongly while no staining was observed in others. Oval and ductal cells represent two distinct populations displaying different expression of GSTs. Pi class GST was detected in the majority of oval and ductal cells. Alpha class GST was detected in 50% of the ductal cell population. In contrast, mu class GST was absent in ductal cells and was present in 24% of oval cells around the portal region. This supports the view that ductal cells are not of bile ductal origin since mu GST is present in normal bile duct epithelial cells. Furthermore the change in expression of GSTs in the liver after CDE treatment is attributed to the large increase in oval and ductal cell populations.