FSH, the primary trophic hormone for gamete development in mammals, is composed of two protein subunits, alpha and beta. It is known that 17 beta-estradiol (E2) and progesterone (P4) can decrease the secretion and synthesis of FSH in ovine pituitary cultures. Data presented here indicate that E2 and P4 decrease the steady state levels of FSH beta mRNA concomitantly with FSH secretion in ovine pituitary cultures. By 24 h, E2 decreased the steady state levels of FSH beta mRNA and FSH secretion by 68% +/- 5%. P4 also decreased both concomitantly, but by 58% +/- 7% after 24 h. E2 and P4 also decrease steady state levels of alpha mRNA, but at a lower rate. Finally, it is shown that E2 and P4 decrease transcription of the FSH beta by greater than 85% in 2 h; alpha mRNA transcription is decreased by 70% in 12 h. These effects are not altered even when cycloheximide is present to block protein synthesis by 95%. These data further define the mechanisms whereby E2 and P4 inhibit ovine FSH secretion/synthesis directly at the pituitary level. They also provide the first example of negative transcriptional regulation by P4 and the second of two examples now established for E2.