The effects of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) and prostaglandin F2 alpha (PGF2 alpha) on the adenylate cyclase-cAMP and inositol phospholipid-phospholipase C-inositol trisphosphate and diacylglycerol transmembrane signalling systems were evaluated in cultured human granulosa-luteal cells. Granulosa-luteal cells obtained from patients undergoing in vitro fertilization were cultured for 72 h prior to addition of hormones. During the last 24 h of culture granulosa-luteal cells were incubated with [3H]inositol. Neither hCG nor gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) stimulated the inositol phospholipid-phospholipase C signalling system. PGF2 alpha stimulated increases in inositol mono-, bis-, and trisphosphate accumulation in 30 min incubations. NaF (20 mM) mimicked the stimulatory effect of PGF2 alpha on inositol phosphate accumulation suggesting the involvement of a guanine nucleotide regulatory protein in the activation of phospholipase C. In contrast, hCG but not PGF2 alpha or NaF stimulated cAMP accumulation in 30 min incubations. Simultaneous treatment with hCG and PGF2 alpha did not alter the stimulatory effect of PGF2 alpha on inositol phosphate accumulation but reduced (37%) the stimulatory effect of hCG on cAMP accumulation. The protein kinase C activator, 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol 13-acetate (TPA) inhibited the stimulatory effects of hCG (76%) and PGF2 alpha (62%) on cAMP and inositol phosphate accumulation, respectively. Thus, cultures of human granulosa-luteal cells possess multiple transmembrane signalling systems which may be modulated by the activation of protein kinase C.