Mature antral follicles were removed from the ovaries of pregnant mare serum gonadotropin (PMSG)-primed hamsters at proestrus prior to the LH surge. Following various incubation times with either LH (ovine) or FSH (rat), cAMP levels were determined in whole follicles, cumulus-oocyte complexes (COCs), and zona-intact or zona-free oocytes. LH produced a dose- and time-dependent change in follicle cAMP but had a minimal effect on the COCs and caused no change in cAMP in zona-free oocytes. By contrast, rFSH stimulated a small rise in follicular cAMP but significantly increased levels in COCs and zona-free oocytes. In a second series of experiments follicles were exposed for short periods to various additives after which they were washed and returned to hormone-free medium for a 6-hr total incubation period. LH (1 microgram/ml) initiated maturation in follicle-enclosed oocytes after a 5- to 15-min exposure period while groups incubated with 100 ng/ml required 60 min. FSH did not stimulate maturation after a 60-min exposure and when combined with 1 microgram or 100 ng/ml of LH negated the maturational effects seen with LH alone. It was postulated that the reason that lower concentrations of LH did not stimulate maturation following short-term incubations was due to an insufficient rise in cAMP. However, neither dbcAMP nor forskolin augmented the capacity of LH to initiate maturation following short-term exposure. By contrast dbcGMP and the guanylate cyclase activator, sodium nitroprusside (NP) did augment the maturation-inducing effects of LH. NP + LH raised cGMP concentrations in the follicle and oocyte and decreased follicular cAMP at 30 and 120 min. The results of this study indicate that the component cells within a follicle respond selectively with cAMP changes, depending on the gonadotropin, in a variable time- and dose-dependent manner. While LH is the more potent activator of cAMP in whole follicles, cAMP levels in the cumulus oophorus and oocyte show the greatest increase following exposure to FSH. LH was the more potent initiator of maturation, possibly through its effects on the mural granulosa cells. FSH appears to exert a more inhibitory role which may be due in part to elevated cAMP levels and/or a putitative inhibitor in the COC and oocyte.