Indirect evidence suggests that cells of the osteoblastic lineage may mediate augmented osteoclastic bone resorption induced by PTH. To test this suggestion, osteoclasts were disaggregated from neonatal rat long bones and incubated on slices of human femoral cortical bone. Resorption was measured by computer-assisted morphometric and stereophotogram-metric quantification of osteoclastic excavations, identified in the scanning electron microscope after culture. We compared the effect of PTH on bone resorption by osteoclasts incubated alone with the effect of the hormone on resorption by osteoclasts cocultured with osteoblastic cells. PTH had no effect on bone resorption by osteoclasts alone, but in the presence of any of three osteoblast-containing cell populations, or in the presence of cloned, hormone-responsive osteosarcoma cells, PTH caused a 2- to 4-fold increase in osteoclastic resorption. Significant stimulation was observed at 10(-4) IU/ml PTH. None of the osteoblastic cell populations caused morphologically detectable bone resorption in the absence of osteoclasts. These results indicate that PTH acts primarily on osteoblasts, which are induced by the presence of the hormone to stimulate osteoclastic bone resorption.