After the loss of small bowel through disease or surgery the residual bowel adapts by increasing its functional capacity. This process of adaptation involves dilatation, hypertrophy and mucosal hyperplasia, particularly distal to the area of bowel loss or disease. The response of the residual bowel is mediated by a complex interplay of factors including luminal nutrition, pancreaticobiliary secretions, luminal or local growth factors and also humoral or endocrine factors. The experimental model commonly used to characterize the adaptive response, massive small bowel resection (MSBR), involves 80% resection of the small bowel in the rat. Of the various putative humoral factors, most work has focused on the products of the ileal L cells: enteroglucagon and peptide YY. Plasma levels of both hormones are increased after MSBR and indeed their mRNA levels are also increased as a result of an increase in the amount of message per L cell. Whilst PYY probably serves as an 'ileal brake' to slow the movement of the luminal contents and hence increase their mucosal contact time, the role of the enteroglucagon is unresolved. The molecular cloning of the proglucagon gene has revealed, firstly, that there are a number of biologically active peptides which derive from the propeptide and, secondly, that tissue-specific differential processing occurs. Most studies do not clearly define which of these products of proglucagon is being measured and is termed as glucagon-like or enteroglucagon immunoreactivity. The insulin-like growth factors (IGF) have a potent mitogenic action on the bowel. Their role after MSBR is likely to be largely paracrine. Though IGF-I mRNA levels do not increase after MSBR, the precipitous and early fall in ileal IGF-binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3) mRNA levels suggests a fall in IGFBP-3 levels may increase local IGF-I bioactivity. Polyamine synthesis is a critical component of the adaptive response, although the stimulus to their dramatic increase in synthesis after MSBR remains to be elucidated. Other humoral factors such as cholecystokinin, neurotensin and bombesin probably have minor indirect roles in the adaptive response. Components of the epidermal growth factor/transforming growth factor α response pathway family of growth factors may be involved as paracrine regulators. There is thus strong evidence that humoral factors play an important role in intestinal adaptation; characterization of the nature of the humoral factors and their relationship with other influences such as luminal nutrition and pancreatic biliary secretions may facilitate the development of new therapeutic strategies for the short bowel syndromes.