The distribution and the cellular source of the novel extracellular matrix glycoprotein tenascin were studied in normal and fibrotic rat liver. Cryostat sections of normal rat livers, livers of rats treated with intraperitoneal injections of CCl4 and 4-day-old and 8-day-old primary fat-storing cell cultures were stained for tenascin and desmin using an immunoperoxidase procedure or a double-label immunofluorescence technique. Fat-storing cell cultures were metabolically labeled with 3H-proline. Radiolabeled proteins were immunoprecipitated from the supernatant with antitenascin antiserum and subjected to polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. In normal rat livers, tenascin was detected discontinuously along the sinusoids, whereas portal tracts were devoid of staining. In fibrotic rat livers, tenascin was preferentially expressed in areas of cell damage, in slender septa or at connective tissue-parenchymal interfaces. The middle region of broad septa was negative. Desmin-positive fat-storing cells accumulated in areas strongly immunoreactive for tenascin, and double-label immunofluorescence showed cells positive for both tenascin and desmin. In fat-storing cell cultures, both intracellular positivity for tenascin and staining of extracellular fibers were seen. Gel electrophoresis of immunoprecipitated proteins revealed two major and three minor bands with molecular weights consistent with tenascin. We conclude that tenascin is a component of the extracellular matrix of both normal and fibrotic rat livers. The strong expression of tenascin in areas of cell damage, in "early" septa or at septal-parenchymal interfaces, in contrast to its absence from the middle region of mature septa, suggests a role in early matrix organization. Fat-storing cells synthesize and secrete tenascin.