Different bacterial toxins capable of modifying specific alpha-subunits of G-proteins were used to characterize the guanine nucleotide-binding protein (G-protein) dependency of the effects of endothelins (ETs) on PRL, LH, and FSH secretion. Primary cultures of anterior pituitary cells obtained from female rats were preincubated for 24 h with 20 ng/ml pertussis toxin (PTX) or 2 micrograms/ml cholera toxin (CTX) before challenge with ETs. Both ET-1 and ET-3 elicited a concentration-dependent inhibition of PRL secretion and stimulated the release of LH and FSH secretion on pituitary cells not treated with toxins. Based on the calculated ration of the half-maximal effective concentrations (EC50) of ET-1 and ET-3, ET-1 showed 7800, 20, and 14 times greater potency than ET-3 on PRL, LH, and FSH secretion, respectively. PTX, a selective inhibitor of Gi and several other G proteins, increased the basal secretion of PRL and completely eliminated the responsiveness of lactotroph cells to ET-1 and ET-3. Pretreatment with PTX caused a markedly different effect on LH and FSH secretion: while basal LH release was slightly increased, FSH secretion was markedly depressed by PTX. Moreover, while ET-induced LH secretion was enhanced by PTX, the effectiveness of ETs on FSH release was completely abolished. CTX, known as an activator of Gs proteins, decreased the basal secretory activity of lactotrophs but did not influence the ET-induced decrease of PRL release. CTX pretreatment (like PTX before) elicited a strikingly different effect on LH and FSH: while basal LH secretion was enhanced, basal FSH secretion was markedly inhibited by CTX. Moreover, while the effectiveness of ETs on LH secretion was not changed significantly, the stimulatory effect of ETs on FSH secretion was diminished after CTX pretreatment. Thus, the inhibition of PRL secretion by ETs requires a PTX-sensitive G protein while the ET-induced stimulation of FSH secretion involves both PTX- and CTX-sensitive elements. The fact that pretreatments with PTX or CTX influenced basal secretion of PRL, LH, and FSH suggests that PTX- and/or CTX-sensitive G proteins are directly involved in the process of exocytosis. Additionally, these findings might indicate an active paracrine/autocrine regulation of pituitary cells in culture that are impaired or enhanced by the bacterial toxins employed. Though the broad substrate specificity of PTX and CTX and the multiplicity of G protein families did not allow us to identify the specific G protein(s) involved, these data reveal the diversity of ET-induced intracellular signaling mechanisms in lactotrophs and gonadotrophs.