Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is the major regulator of adrenocortical steroidogenesis in mammals. By comparing the sensitivity to ACTH of isolated adrenocortical cells from two sources of the same strain (Sprague-Dawley, SD) of outbred rats, we have identified a source of rat with low sensitivity to ACTH in vitro. Cells isolated from Holtzman SD rats had a high sensitivity to ACTH (minimal effective concentration 50 pg/ml), whereas Taconic SD rats had a low sensitivity (minimal effective concentration 250 pg/ml; maximal steroidogenesis <50% of Holtzman cells). The responsiveness to analogues of cyclic adenosine monophosphate and cholesterol was also significantly lower in Taconic SD rats. Taconic adrenals were smaller, had significantly more mitochondria per cell, but approximately 20% less total lipid droplet volume per cell. There was no difference in latency to ACTH in vitro; however, steroidogenesis plateaued in Taconic cells after 25 min, while Holtzman cells secreted corticosterone almost linearly for at least 120 min. By contrast, the cyclic adenosine monophosphate secretion increased at the same rate for at least 120 min in cells from both sources. There were no differences between cells from the two sources in immunoreactive steroidogenic enzyme content. In vivo, the magnitude of the ACTH and corticosterone responses to two types of stress were similar in both sources. The thymus glands of Holtzman rats were significantly larger than those of Taconic rats. It is concluded that: (1) reduced sensitivity to ACTH in vitro in Taconic SD rats results from differences in the later stages of the steroidogenic pathway; (2) factors in addition to ACTH are required for maximal steroidogenesis in Taconic SD rats; (3) a comparison of the steroidogenic pathways in adrenal cells from these two sources of outbred rats should be useful in further delineating the relative importance of putative intracellular signalling mechanisms involved in initiation and maintenance of steroidogenesis, and (4) these data suggest that different sources of the same strain of rats sufficiently diverge over time to become separate strains (‘substrains’). Overreliance on a single source of laboratory rodent may obscure natural variability in endocrine responses to stress and provide a misleading indication of homogeneity of responses.