Hypoxia is thought to be a common precursor of coronary artery disease and malignant tumors, both diseases representing the leading causes of death in industrial nations. So far, investigations of oxygen-regulated erythropoietin (EPO) gene expression in the human hepatoma cell lines Hep3B and HepG2 allowed many important insights into the mechanisms of oxygen-sensing, signalling and regulation of an increasing number of oxygen-responsive genes. To differentiate the various signalling pathways involved in EPO production by these two cell lines, we examined several factors that positively influenced EPO expression. The results demonstrate a keen differential effect of cell density and oxygen concentration on EPO induction in Hep3B compared to HepG2 cells. Using optimized cell culture conditions, EPO production rates as high as 1 U EPO per 106 Hep3B cells in 24 h could be achieved. We also found a moderate but reproducible positive effect of CoCl2 on hypoxia-induced EPO expression in Hep3B but a negative CoCl2 effect on hypoxic induction in HepG2 cells. CoCl2 inhibited cell growth in a concentration-dependent manner. Interleukin-6 was synergistic with hypoxia on EPO induction in Hep3B as well as HepG2 cells, and dexamethasone enhanced this effect in Hep3B but not in HepG2 cells. The moderate CoCl2-dependent increase of EPO production observed in hypoxic Hep3B cells migh indicate that CoCl2 and hypoxia do not necessarily act via identical signalling pathways.