The presence of desmin is used to identify Ito cells in rat liver and to evaluate the purity of separated and cultured Ito cells. Heterogeneity of the normal Ito cell population has been suggested; this could include variations in the content of cytoskeletal components. For these reasons we decided to reevaluate the use of desmin staining as a phenotypical marker of Ito cells in normal rat liver. Our approach was to combine desmin staining with identification of vitamin A (autofluorescence), lipid droplets (Sudan III), vimentin, laminin and tenascin, using cryostat sections: Immunofluorescence, double-immunofluorescence or immunoperoxidase techniques were used. All the techniques described corroborate the existence of desmin-negative Ito cells, mainly located in pericentral areas. In fact, lobular desmin-positive cells showed uneven distribution because they were more frequent in periportal than in pericentral areas. On the contrary, Ito cells identified on the basis of morphological criteria or positivity for laminin were evenly distributed. Double immunofluorescence confirmed this observation, showing nearly complete codistribution of laminin and desmin in periportal areas. Outside this area, positivity for desmin was observed only in about 50 of lamininpositive cells. Our observations suggest that desmin cannot be viewed as a phenotypical marker but rather is a differentiation marker of Ito cells, possibly indicating a specific functional state. (Hepatology 1994;19:440–446).