Columns of enzymatically dispersed rat pituitary cells have been used to examine the effects of estradiol and the estrogen receptor antagonist, tamoxifen, on the responsiveness of the gonadotropes to repeated challenges with GnRH. Synthetic GnRH stimulated readily the release of LH from the pituitary cells. When challenged repeatedly with the same submaximal dose (8 nmol/1) of the releasing hormone, cells from animals in diestrus 2 or pro-estrus, like those from juvenile rats, showed a marked progressive increase in their sensitivity, but those from rats in estrus or diestrus 1 did not. Adenohypophysial cells removed from adult rats ovariectomized 14 days previously also failed to exhibit sensitization even when estradiol-17β (1 and 10 nmol/1) was included in the perifusion fluid. However, those from ovariectomized rats treated with appropriate doses of the steroid (1.5 μg/day sc for 14 days or 5 μg sc 22 h before decapitation) did. The capacity of pituitary cells from intact rats to exhibit priming on the anticipated day of pro-estrus was unaffected by the administration of the estrogen receptor antagonist, tamoxifen (700 μg/100 g sc on the morning of diestrus 1 and 24 h later). Similarly, addition of tamoxifen (1 μmol/1) to the incubation medium failed to influence the capacity of pituitary cells from juvenile rats to exhibit priming in vitro. The results support the concept that the ability of GnRH to 'prime' the gonadotropes is dependent on estradiol and indicate that the exposure of the hypothalamo-pituitary complex to critical levels of estradiol prior to autopsy is necessary for the gonadotropes to retain their capacity to exhibit priming in vitro.