The following studies were conducted to determine whether luteinizing hormone (LH), a hormone which increases cellular levels of cyclic AMP, also provokes increases in 'second messengers' derived from inositol lipid metabolism (i.e. inositol phosphates and diacylglycerol). Rat granulosa cells isolated from mature Graafian follicles were prelabelled for 3 h with myo-[2-3H]inositol. LH provoked rapid (5 min) and sustained (up to 60 min) increases in the levels of inositol mono-, bis, and trisphosphates (IP, IP2 and IP3, respectively). Time course studies revealed that IP3 was formed more rapidly than IP2 and IP following LH treatment. The response to LH was concentration-dependent with maximal increases at LH concentrations of 1 microgram/ml. LiCl (2-40 mM) enhanced the LH-provoked accumulation of all [3H]inositol phosphates, presumably by inhibiting the action of inositol phosphate phosphatases. The effectiveness of LH, however, was dependent on the concentration of lithium employed; maximal increases in IP were observed at 10 mM-LiCl, whereas maximal increases in IP2 and IP3 were observed at 20 mM- and 40 mM-LiCl, respectively. The stimulatory effects of LH on inositol phosphate and progesterone accumulation were also compared with changes in cyclic nucleotide levels. LH rapidly increased levels of inositol phosphates, progesterone and cyclic AMP, but transiently reduced levels of cyclic GMP. These results demonstrate that LH increases both cyclic AMP and inositol trisphosphate (and presumably diacylglycerol) in rat granulosa cells. Our findings suggest that two messenger systems exist to mediate the action of LH in granulosa cells.