Forskolin (7 beta-acetoxy-8, 13-epoxy-1 alpha,6 beta,9 alpha-trihydroxy-labd-14-ene-11-one) induced both cyclic AMP production and lipolysis in intact fat cells, but stimulated lipolysis without increasing cyclic AMP at a concentration of 10(-5) M. Homogenization of fat cells elicited lipolysis without elevation of cyclic AMP. Forskolin did not stimulate lipolysis in the homogenate. Forskolin stimulated both cyclic AMP production and lipolysis in a cell-free system consisting of endogenous lipid droplets and a lipoprotein lipase-free lipase fraction prepared from fat cells. However, at a concentration of 10(-6) M, it induced lipolysis without increase in the cyclic AMP content in this cell-free system. In the cell-free system, homogenization of the lipid droplets resulted in marked increase in lipolysis to almost the same level as that with 10(-4) M forskolin without concomitant increase in cyclic AMP. Addition of forskolin to a cell-free system consisting of homogenized lipid droplets and lipase did not stimulate lipolysis further. Phosphodiesterase activities were found to be almost the same both in the presence and absence of forskolin in these reaction mixtures. Although 10(-3) M forskolin produced maximal concentrations of cyclic AMP: 6.7 x 10(-7) M in fat cells and 2.7 x 10(-7) M in the cell-free system, 10(-4) M cyclic AMP did not stimulate lipolysis in the cell-free system. In a cell-free system consisting of lipid droplets and the lipase, pyrophosphate inhibited forskolin-induced cyclic AMP production, but decreased forskolin-mediated lipolysis only slightly. Based on these results, mechanism of lipolytic action of forskolin was discussed.