Fetal human myoblasts have been employed to examine the role of hormonal factors in human myogenesis. The results show that human myoblast proliferation is stimulated by insulin, hydrocortisone, and prostaglandin F2 alpha (PGF2 alpha). Exposure of human myoblasts preparing to differentiate to either PGE2 or isoproterenol results in the precocious initiation of differentiation (i.e., cell fusion and increase in creatine kinase activity). Three antagonists of prostanoid synthesis, indomethacin, aspirin, and DL-6-chloro-alpha-methylcarbozole-2-acetic acid, inhibit cell number increase with complete inhibitions of proliferation at 5 X 10(-5) M indomethacin and 6 X 10(-4) M aspirin. Reversal of the indomethacin-imposed block is achieved by prostaglandin F2 alpha. The same antagonists of prostanoid synthesis, when added to older cultures, depress prostaglandin E (PGE) levels and inhibit human myoblast differentiation. During differentiation, PGE is present in both the intracellular compartment (0.47 to 0.66 pmol/microgram DNA) and the culture medium (1.83 to 4.53 nmol PGE). The results suggest a role for prostanoids in the regulation of both human myoblast proliferation and differentiation. They also demonstrate that the active cyclooxygenase products are produced endogenously by the in vitro myogenic population. The findings are discussed within the context of what is known of the relationship between growth factor and prostanoid actions and the roles of these two categories of hormones in the regulation of myogenesis.