Cachectin (tumor necrosis factor) is a powerful macrophage hormone released during infection, which circulates in blood to produce diverse effects in the organism. We examined the effect of cachectin on release of anterior pituitary hormones from either hemipituitaries or dispersed pituitary cells incubated in vitro. The action of cachectin on dispersed cells was demonstrable only after 2 hr of incubation. With this incubation time, the protein produced a dose-related stimulation of release of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), growth hormone (GH), and thyrotropin (TSH), but not of prolactin (Prl), from both hemipituitaries and dispersed cells. The doses required for stimulation were low in the case of hemipituitaries, usually of the order of 10(-12) M, whereas they were higher by one or two orders of magnitude with the dispersed pituitary cells. This may be related either to loss of receptors for the protein during the dispersion procedure or to the fact that in the hemipituitary system cell interactions are facilitated because the cells are close to each other. In the dispersed cell system cachectin evoked a dose-related decrease in cyclic AMP content. Incubation with somatostatin lowered the cyclic AMP content of the cells and depressed GH output without altering output of TSH or Prl. When somatostatin and cachectin were incubated together with the cells, the suppression of cyclic AMP production was abolished; TSH and Prl release were stimulated, but the action of cachectin to stimulate GH release was blocked. The stimulation of Prl release by cachectin in the presence of somatostatin may be related to the elevation of cyclic AMP, a known stimulator of Prl release. The cyclooxygenase inhibitor indomethacin nearly completely blocked the stimulatory effect of cachectin on release of GH and TSH from dispersed pituitary cells but had only a slight and nonsignificant attenuating effect on its ACTH-releasing action. These results suggest that at least part of the stimulatory action of the peptide on pituitary hormone release is brought about by prostaglandins. The failure of indomethacin to block the release of ACTH induced by cachectin suggests that other mechanisms may be involved in the release of ACTH induced by this peptide. Since the concentrations of cachectin required to stimulate pituitary hormone release are similar to those that are encountered in plasma during infection, it is likely that this direct pituitary action has pathophysiological significance.