Early descriptions of in vitro ACTH bioassays all emphasised the need to use extracted plasma samples due to interference by an unidentified component. The aim of these studies was to elucidate the effects of whole plasma on ACTH steroidogenic activity in vitro and to identify the responsible factor. A sensitive in vitro dispersed bovine adrenocortical cell bioassay was established. The addition of 10% ACTH-depleted human pooled plasma to the incubation media resulted in basal steroidogenesis equivalent to that achieved with 10(-9) M ACTH1-24 and potentiated the steroidogenic activity of 10(-9) M ACTH1-24 by 7.8-fold. This potentiation was dependent on the concentration of both ACTH and plasma in the media, but did not result from the mitogenic effect of plasma. A pituitary source was excluded and the potentiating activity was not extractable by Vycor glass. Column chromatography demonstrated two peaks of activity corresponding to molecular weights of 650 and 220x10(3) Da. These peaks did not correspond to the plasma binding of 125I-ACTH which resulted from non-specific binding to albumin. Lipoprotein-deficient serum had no effect on either basal or ACTH-stimulated steroidogenesis, but both were restored by the addition of purified lipoproteins. However, novel findings demonstrated a differential effect of low (LDL) and high (HDL) density lipoproteins on basal and ACTH-stimulated steroid production; thus, LDL exerted a greater effect on the former, whilst HDL potentiated the steroidogenic activity of added ACTH more than LDL. The addition of the lipoproteins to lipoprotein-deficient serum restored its basal and ACTH potentiating effects, the cholesterol concentrations of the chromatographic fractions exactly paralleling their ACTH potentiating effect. These findings suggest that not only are lipoproteins the plasma factor(s) which potentiates ACTH steroidogenic activity in in vitro bioassays, but also that they exert differential effects on basal and ACTH-stimulated steroid production.