We studied the expression and distribution of the polypeptide diazepam binding inhibitor (DBI) in rat peripheral organs by immunocytochemistry, radioimmunoassay, Northern blot analysis and binding assay. Variable amounts of the DBI peptide and DBI mRNA were found in all the tissues examined (liver, duodenum, testis, kidney, adrenal gland, heart, ovary, lung, skeletal muscle and spleen), with the highest level of expression in liver (220 pmol of DBI/mg protein) and the lowest in spleen (11 pmol of DBI/mg protein). A good correlation between DBI-like immunoreactivity (DBI-LI) and mRNA content was found in all tissues except the heart. The immunohistochemical analysis revealed discrete localization of DBI-LI in cell types with specialized functions: for example, the highest DBI-LI content was found in steroid-producing cells (glomerulosa and fasciculata cells of adrenal cortex, Leydig cells of testis); lower DBI-LI immunostaining was found in epithelial cells specialized for water and electrolyte transport (intestinal mucosa, distal convoluted tubules of kidney). Hepatic cells contained moderate immunoreactivity however the total content of DBI in liver is relatively high and is due to the diffuse presence of DBI in every hepatocyte. Cells with high expression of DBI have been shown to contain a high density of mitochondrial benzodiazepine (BZ) binding sites. This observation led us to perform a competitive binding assay between DBI and [3H]PK11195 (a ligand for the mitochondrial BZ binding sites) on mitochondrial membranes of adrenal cortical cells. In this experiment, DBI yielded an apparent competitive inhibition of the binding of PK11195 to the BZ binding sites. Our data support a possible role for DBI as endogenous regulator of intracellular metabolic functions, such as steroidogenesis, via the mitochondrial BZ receptors.