Many classes of environmental contaminants affect the reproductive function of animals through interactions with the endocrine system. The primary components affected by endocrine active compounds (EACs) are the steroid receptors and the enzymes responsible for steroidogenesis. This study sought to develop an in vitro model for assessing EAC effects in sea turtles by examining their ability to alter cytochrome P450 aromatase (CYP19) activity. Aromatase is the enzyme responsible for the conversion of testosterone to estradiol. This enzyme is critical in the sexual differentiation of reptiles which demonstrate temperature-dependent sex determination. An immortal testis cell line GST-TS from a green sea turtle was grown in culture at 30 degrees C in RPMI 1640 media. The cells were exposed to three known aromatase inducers; dexamethasone (Dex), 8Br-cyclic AMP, or human chronic gonadotropin (HCG) and one aromatase inhibitor 4-androstenol-dione (4-OHA). In addition, the GST-TS cells were exposed to 0.1-30 microM atrazine and 3-100 microM 4,4'-DDE. The inducing compounds that have been shown to increase aromatase activity in other systems failed to induce aromatase activity in the GST-TS cells, yet exposure to the inhibiting compound, 4-OHA, did result in a significant reduction. Atrazine (0.1, 1.0 and 10 microM) significantly induced aromatase activity following a 24 h exposure, and 4,4'-DDE inhibited the activity but only at cytotoxic concentrations (100 microM). Based on these results, this in vitro model can be useful in examining the endocrine effects of EACs in sea turtles.