The effects of direct and indirect activation of adenylyl cyclase on the production of intracellular and extracellular cAMP and cGMP by 13- to 16-day-old cattle embryos were determined. Embryos were incubated for 2h in a Krebs Ringer bicarbonate medium containing the phosphodiesterase inhibitor isobutyl methylxanthine, to which stimulating agents forskolin (100 mu mol l(-1)), cholera toxin (2 mu g ml(-1)), or both were added. Total (intra-and extracellular) basal cAMP and cGMP concentrations ranged from 6.65 +/- 0.895 to 3.4 +/- 0.708 fmol mu g(-1) protein in 13-day-old embryos and from 4.05 +/- 1.151 to 0.19 +/- 0.041 fmol mu g(-1) protein in 16-day-old embryos. Forskolin induced an increase (P < 0.001) in cAMP that ranged from 5.4-fold on day 13 to 2.7-fold on day 16, whereas cholera toxin induced an increase (P < 0.001) that ranged from 30-fold at day 13 to 21-fold at day 16, similar to the effect of forskolin and cholera toxin combined. Individually, forskolin and cholera toxin had no effect on cGMP concentrations, but together they induced an increase (P < 0.05). cAMP (P < 0.01) and cGMP (P < 0.001) concentrations decreased with embryo age from day 13 to day 16 for all treatments; the decrease was greater for cGMP than cAMP (5-24-fold versus 1.6-3.3-fold, respectively). It is concluded that inducible adenylyl cyclase is present in 13- to 16-day-old cattle embryos and that the embryos secrete cAMP and cGMP into the incubation medium. Ln addition, basal and inducible concentrations of cAMP and cGMP decrease with embryo age from day 13 to day 16. These observations indicate that cAMP and cGMP may have a role in the rapid embryonic cell proliferation that occurs at this time or in signalling to the endometrium.