To study the role of androgens in the control of gonadotropin and prolactin secretion in the ewe, we have characterized androgen receptors in pituitary cytosol, and investigated the effect of androgens on pituitary hormone release in vivo and in vitro. High affinity, low capacity receptors, with an affinity for methyltrienolone (R1881) > 5α-dihydrotestosterone (5α-DHT)>testosterone (T) >> androstenedione (A4), estradiol-17β (E2) and progesterone (P), were identified in pituitary cytosol. Addition of 1 nM 5α-DHT, but not A4, inhibited luteinizing hormone (LH) release from pituitary cells in vitro, induced by 10-10 to 10-7 M luteinizing hormone releasing hormone (LHRH). The release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) with 10-9 M LHRH was inhibited when cells were incubated with 1 nM 5α-DHT. 5α-DHT had no effect when higher or lower doses of LHRH were used. In ovariectomized ewes, neither an i.v. injection of 1 mg, nor intracarotid injections of up to 1 mg, 5α-DHT affected plasma LH, FSH or prolactin levels, despite dose-related increases in plasma 5α-DHT levels. Daily or twice daily i.m. injections of 5 mg 5α-DHT in oil did not affect LH or FSH levels, but daily injection of 20 mg significantly reduced plasma LH levels within 4 days and plasma FSH levels within 6 days. Thus, despite the presence of androgen receptors in the ewe pituitary, we conclude that androgens per se are of minimal importance in the regulation of pituitary LH, FSH and prolactin secretion in the ewe. The low binding affinity of A4 and the lack of its effect on hormone secretion in vitro suggests that A4 may act as an estrogen precursor rather than an androgenic hormone. The function of the pituitary androgen receptor remains to be established.