Nitrobenzene (NB) has been identified as a testicular toxicant in vivo, but its site of action remains unknown. In the present study, the effect of NB on the Sertoli cell was assessed in vitro using Sertoli cell and Sertoli-germ cell cocultures. The parameters measured were the exfoliation of germ cells; the secretion of lactate, pyruvate, and inhibin; and gross cellular morphology. The effect of metadinitrobenzene (mDNB), a related compound which is a known Sertoli cell toxicant, was assessed for comparison. Gross morphological changes including vacuolation of Sertoli cells were observed following treatment of cultures with 10(-3) M NB. Exposure of cocultures to NB also resulted in dose-dependent exfoliation of predominantly viable germ cells. NB (greater than 5 X 10(-4) M) and mDNB at the single dose level used (10(-4) M) stimulated the secretion of lactate and pyruvate significantly by Sertoli cells, an effect that was more marked in the absence of germ cells. Comparable changes were observed in follicle stimulating hormone (FSH)-stimulated cultures. Inhibin secretion by Sertoli cells was also altered by exposure to NB but in a biphasic manner, with low (10(-8) to 10(-6) M) and high (10(-4) to 10(-3) M) doses enhancing inhibin secretion while intermediate (10(-5) M) doses had no effect. These effects were evident in both culture systems but inhibin secretion by Sertoli-germ cell cocultures was always greater than that by Sertoli cell cultures. However, these effects of NB on inhibin secretion were not evident in FSH-stimulated cultures. In contrast to the effects of NB, mDNB had no effect on basal secretion of inhibin but blocked the stimulatory effect of FSH. It is concluded that NB, like mDNB, is probably a Sertoli cell toxicant in view of its similar disruptive effects on various parameters of Sertoli cell function. However, NB is far less toxic than mDNB at equivalent concentrations in vitro. The present study is the first to evaluate the potential of inhibin secretion by Sertoli cells in culture as an additional marker of toxicant action, and concludes that it merits further study in this context.