The effects of human transferrin (TRF) on granulosa cell function were examined using serum-free cultures of rat granulosa cells obtained from immature, diethylstilbestrol-treated rats. The results show that TRF had dose- and time-dependent inhibitory effects on FSH-induced inhibin and progesterone production with the half-maximal inhibitory dose of 6.1-6.3 micrograms/ml. The inhibitory effect of TRF on FSH-induced inhibin and progesterone production was not reversed by removing TRF and changing medium after 48 h of treatment. TRF also inhibited insulin- and insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I)-induced inhibin production in a dose-dependent manner. TRF did not inhibit forskolin- and 8-bromo-cAMP-induced progesterone production but did inhibit inhibin production induced by these agents. TRF had no effect on basal production of inhibin and progesterone. On the other hand, high concentrations of insulin and cortisol completely counteracted the inhibitory effect of TRF on FSH-induced progesterone production but only partially counteracted the inhibitory effect of TRF on FSH-induced inhibin production. Our data suggest that: 1) TRF may be an important negative modulator of the stimulatory actions of FSH or IGF-I and other factors acting on granulosa cells; 2) the inhibitory effects of TRF require the presence of FSH or other factors such as IGF-I or insulin, which facilitate granulosa cell differentiation; and 3) different mechanisms are involved in the modulating effects of TRF on inhibin and progesterone production.