Glucocorticosteroids stimulate growth hormone (GH) synthesis and inhibit prolactin (PRL) synthesis and cell growth in cultured GH3 cells, a clonal cell strain derived from a rat pituitary tumour. This model system was used to study the mechanism by which glucocorticosteroids enter target cells. The cellular uptake of [3H]dexamethasone was temperature dependent and was further inhibited by addition of an excess amount of cold dexamethasone. Half maximal uptake was obtained after about 5 min at 37 degrees C. The initial rates of [3H]dexamethasone uptake were a linear function of the extracellular hormone concentration. The uptake of [3H]dexamethasone in intact cells studied at different temperatures resulted in linear Arrhenius plots, with a calculated energy of activation of 91.0 kJ x mole-1 x degree-1. Scatchard analysis of specifically cell bound [3H]dexamethasone at equilibrium (0 degrees C) showed a straight line with a calculated dissociation constant (Kd) of 1.6 x 10(-9) M and a maximal uptake of 180 x 10(-15) mole/mg cell protein. Specific binding of [3H]dexamethasone to cytosol proteins could only be demonstrated at 0 degrees C. These results indicate that [3H]dexamethasone diffuses passively into the cell, and binds to specific receptors in an energy dependent way.