The direct effect of LH on estrogen secretion by rat granulosa cells was investigated. Ovarian granulosa cells from immature hypophysectomized diethylstilbestrol-treated rats were primed with FSH for 2 days in vitro to induce LH receptors. After the FSH priming, the granulosa cells were washed, and recultured for 4 additional days in media containing aromatase substrate (10(-7) M androstenedione) and purified FSH or LH. After the incubations, estrogen (E), progesterone (P) and 20 alpha-dihydroprogesterone (20 alpha-OH-P) in the media were measured by RIA. When granulosa cells from hypophysectomized DES-treated rats were cultured for 6 days with FSH and androstenedione, the production of E, P and 20 alpha-OH-P was stimulated to a maximum of 100-, 200- and 270-fold, respectively, above that of control levels. In contrast, LH did not increase steroidogenesis in these cells. Following 2 days of FSH priming in vitro, however, the cultured granulosa cells exhibited marked increases (400-600%) in E, P and 20 alpha-OH-P production in response to LH treatment over a 4-day incubation period. This stimulatory effect of LH on estrogen and progestin production was dose-related; the minimum and maximum effective doses of LH for steroid production were 3 and 30 ng/ml, respectively, and the ED50 was calculated to be 6 ng/ml of LH. As with LH, FSH also stimulated steroidogenesis in a dose-related manner and the apparent ED50 of FSH on steroidogenesis was 45 ng/ml. To investigate whether LH can also stimulate aromatase activity in granulosa cells primed with FSH in vivo, immature hypophysectomized DES-treated rats were injected for 2 days with FSH after which the granulosa cells were isolated and cultured for 4 days in medium containing 10(-7) M androstenedione and LH or FSH. Both LH and FSH stimulated E, P and 20 alpha-OH-P production, and the maximum steroidogenic responses of LH and FSH were similar to those observed in cultured granulosa cells primed with FSH in vitro. THese results have demonstrated that LH is effective in stimulating both estrogen and progestin secretion in rat granulosa cells pretreated with FSH. This suggests an important role of LH in the direct control of both aromatization and luteinization in the granulosa cell.