Studying long-chain fatty acid (LCFA) effects on gene network expression in bovine cells could provide useful information for future practical applications. An optimized in vitro system that does not require tissue collection or cell isolation could fill a niche in the study of PPARalpha activity in ruminants. Specific aims were to optimize culture conditions in Madin-Darby bovine kidney (MDBK) cells to achieve maximal mRNA expression of known peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-alpha (PPARalpha) target genes using palmitate (16:0) as a representative LCFA. Variables included length of incubation time, use of albumin-bound (4:1 molar proportion) 16:0 (A16:0), or addition of insulin. A first time-course experiment tested culturing cells in Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium with 150 microM PPAR ligand Wy-14643 (WY) and A16:0. A second experiment tested the effects of albumin and insulin using 150 microM of 16:0 without albumin or insulin (-Alb/-Ins), 16:0 without albumin plus 5 mg/L of bovine insulin (-Alb/+Ins), A16:0 without insulin (+Alb/-Ins), or a control. A third experiment was a preliminary metabolic characterization of cells and assessed intracellular lipid droplet formation after treatment with 150 microM of 16:0 or an ethanol control. For all experiments, cells were harvested at 0, 6, 12, 18, and 24 h posttreatment. In experiments 1 and 2, mRNA expression was assessed by quantitative PCR of selected PPARalpha target genes as well as PPARalpha coactivators (ACOX1, CPT1A, ACADVL, ACSL1, PPARA, PPARGC1A, LPIN1). In experiment 1, there was a linear increase in mRNA expression of CPT1A (approximately 500%) and ACSL1 (50 to 200%) by 6 h of incubation with both WY and A16:0. The LPIN1 mRNA increased by >100% by 6 h only with A16:0. Further, there was a linear increase in expression of PPARA (approximately 100%) with A16:0 through 24 h of incubation. In experiment 2, insulin increased, and coupling LCFA with albumin tended to delay the response in expression of CPT1A and ACSL1 to 16:0. Data indicated a toxic effect of 150 microM free 16:0 as assessed by cell counts after 12 h of incubation. In experiment 3, MDBK cells appeared to use glucose and AA as energy sources and were able to secrete triglycerides. In addition, MDBK cells cultured with 150 microM of 16:0 had a substantial uptake of LCFA and synthesized intracellular lipid droplets. Overall, results indicated that a 6-h incubation with free LCFA and addition of insulin was suitable to detect marked effects on mRNA expression of PPARalpha target genes in MDBK cells.