Erythrosine (FD&C Red Dye No.3) is a tetraiodinated derivative of fluorescein. Rats fed a 4% erythrosine diet for 30 months beginning in utero have an increased incidence of thyroid adenomas and adenocarcinomas. These tumors may be secondary to increased stimulation of the thyroid gland by TSH. This study was undertaken to determine if dietary erythrosine disrupts the pituitary-thyroid axis thereby altering serum thyroid hormone levels. TSH levels, or the pituitary's response to TRH. Rats were fed diets containing erythrosine (0.5, 1.0, 4.0%), sodium iodide (0.16%), or fluorescein (1.6%) for 3 weeks after which TRH testing was performed in vivo. Erythrosine produced a dose-dependent increase in serum T4 levels. With the 4% erythrosine diet, serum T4 and T3 levels and the free-T4 index were significantly increased, whereas the free-T3 index were significantly increased, whereas the free-T3 index was unchanged. Rats fed the 4.0% erythrosine diet had an exaggerated TSH response to TRH; 10 min after the TRH injection, serum TSH levels were 80% greater than TSH levels of control rats. Short-term administration of erythrosine to rats decreased hepatic T3 production by decreasing its conversion of T4 to T3, indicating that erythrosine decreases hepatic 5'-deiodinase activity. These data demonstrate that dietary ingestion of 4% erythrosine disrupts the pituitary-thyroid axis as evidenced by an increased TSH response to TRH. This effect is mediated by erythrosine or an iodinated metabolite, since ingestion of its fluorescein nucleus had no effect. Erythrosine's effects were not likely mediated by iodide, because serum T4 and T3 levels were elevated and iodide administration did not increase the TSH response to TRH. These data suggest that erythrosine increases the pituitary's TSH response to TRH by altering thyrotroph cell conversion of T4 to T3. Chronic erythrosine ingestion may promote thyroid tumor formation in rats via chronic stimulation of the thyroid by TSH.