Interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) is known to inhibit the release of ACTH, PRL, and GH by rat anterior pituitary (AP) cells, stimulated by appropriate hypothalamic releasing factors. In the present study we examined the mechanisms underlying this inhibition. Dose-response studies, revealing a maximal inhibitory effect with an IFN-gamma dose as small as 10 U/ml, suggested the existence of a limiting intermediate step. In addition, in perifusion experiments with aggregates of established hormone-secreting tumor cell lines (AtT-20 and GH3), IFN-gamma had no inhibitory effect, suggesting that an accessory cell type was involved. Studies on differentially enriched cell populations of normal rat AP, obtained by velocity and buoyant density sedimentation, indicated that the inhibitory effect of IFN-gamma on stimulated ACTH and GH release was absent in those populations that contained only few folliculo-stellate (FS) cells. The presence of a minimal proportion of FS cells was found to be necessary for the inhibition to be manifest. This was seen in monolayers, but also in cultures of AP cell aggregates, which are well known to closely mimic the behavior of the AP gland in vivo. Definitive evidence for the role of FS cells was obtained by reconstitutive coculture experiments; FS cell-poor populations, which by themselves resisted the inhibitory effect of IFN-gamma, became sensitive when cocultured with an FS cell-rich population. Basal ACTH and GH release were not influenced by preincubation with IFN-gamma in either original or fractionated AP cell populations. In contrast, basal PRL release was inhibited in both systems. In cultures of AP cell populations, separated by velocity sedimentation, this inhibition showed a pattern similar to that observed for stimulated release of ACTH and GH, i.e. more inhibition in fractions with a higher proportion of FS cells. However, in FS cell-poor cultures, inhibition of basal PRL release did occur, although to a lesser degree than in FS cell-rich cultures. Our results indicate that IFN-gamma affects AP hormone secretion through the FS cell. In addition, they suggest that IFN-gamma and the FS cell constitute a system through which the pituitary gland perceives changes in the activation state of the immune system.