The characteristics of TRH-induced acute PRL and GH secretion were studied in GH4C1 cells, a clonal rat anterior pituitary tumor cell line which secretes PRL and GH. The experiments were carried out both in a flow system in which microcarrier (Cytodex)-attached cells were perifused at a constant rate and in a conventional static culture system. In both systems, cells responded to TRH in a qualitatively similar manner. TRH significantly stimulated PRL and GH secretion within 5 sec without a detectable lag period. The secretion rate was highest during the initial 1 min, declined sharply thereafter despite the continuous presence of TRH, and plateaued at a lower level. The maximum dose of TRH caused 250-700% of basal secretion during the early period (approximately 8 min; first phase) and about 150% of basal secretion thereafter (second phase). The sustained lower secretion (second phase) was maintained as long as cells were exposed to TRH (up to 2.5 h), and the secretion rate returned to the basal level within 30 min of removal of TRH from the medium. The half-maximal doses for the first and second phase secretion were 2-3 and 0.5-1 nM, respectively, in both the perifusion and static culture systems. Over a 2-day period, TRH stimulated PRL synthesis and inhibited GH synthesis. The dose-response curves for these long term effects on hormone synthesis were similar to the dose-response curves for the first phase of release. [N3-methyl-His2]TRH gave similar results, but was more potent than TRH. [N3-methyl-His2]TRH stimulated first phase release with an ED50 of 0.4-0.8 nM, second phase release with an ED50 of 0.1-0.2 nM, and hormone synthesis with an ED50 of 0.7-0.8 nM. Preincubation of the cells with Ca+2-free medium significantly depressed both first and second phase secretion. Preexposure of the cells to cycloheximide (10 micrograms/ml) had little effect on the first phase of secretion, but reduced second phase secretion. The acute effects of TRH on GH and PRL were identical, except that the secretory response tended to be greater for PRL. We conclude that 1) TRH causes hormone secretion very rapidly in a biphasic manner; 2) the first phase of secretion consists primarily of the release of stored hormone, whereas the second phase includes the release of newly synthesized hormone; 3) the dose-response curve of second phase secretion is shifted to the left compared with that of first phase secretion; and 4) both phases of secretion are at least partially dependent on extracellular Ca+2.