These studies were undertaken to characterize the exocytotic changes in purified gonadotropes by three-dimensional imaging using scanning electron microscopy. Rat gonadotropes were purified using a fluorescence-activated cell sorter and an argon laser treatment system. The purified gonadotropes were stimulated with GnRH under various conditions and fixed for scanning electron microscopy. After the GnRH stimulation, many 'hole' structures (diameter 0.1-0.5 micron) were observed on the cell surface, and notably the population of cells with 10 or more holes was clearly increased. The pattern of the time-course of the changes in this population was perfectly consistent with the LH secretory profile of pituitary cells, and their formation of the cells with 10 or more holes was completely inhibited by pretreatment with a GnRH antagonist. Our data suggest that the hole structure represents an exocytotic opening site and that regulated exocytosis in purified gonadotropes can be evaluated by scanning electron microscopy. This method may be widely applicable to other endocrine cells.