Isolation of human term placental membranes in the presence or absence of protease inhibitors indicated that protease inhibitors significantly reduced the amounts of [(125)I]-labelled gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH) binding to membrane GnRH-receptors in vitro by approximately 20%. This decrease was largely due to the ethanol used to dissolve the serine protease inhibitor, phenylmethylsulphonylfluoride (PMSF). Ethanol alone decreased the specific binding of [(125)I]-labelled GnRH isoform (IC(50), 7.9 +/- 0.8 mg/ml; n = 6) or agonist tracers (IC(50), 10.0 +/- 1.4 mg/ml; n = 6) to human placental membranes in a dose-dependent manner. Other alcohols also interfered with [(125)I]-GnRH isoform or agonist binding: inhibition increased with increasing carbon chain length and was dependent on the isomeric position of the hydroxyl group. Fractionation of term placental cytosol by gel chromatography demonstrated the presence of a high molecular weight fraction ( approximately 60-70 kDa) which inhibited [(125)I]-GnRH binding to human placental membranes. However, placental cytosol fractions did not cross-react significantly with a specific anti-GnRH antibody. Surprisingly, re-assay of cytosol fractions in the presence of a cocktail of protease inhibitors generated a factor (molecular weight approximately 40-50 kDa) which did cross-react strongly with the GnRH antibody. The generation of this factor was due to the ethanol solvent rather than to the protease inhibitors per se, as treatment of pooled 'latent' cytosol fractions with ethanol alone generated GnRH-like immunoactivity (irGnRH) which competed in parallel with GnRH standard. The amount of irGnRH generated depended on the concentration of ethanol added to the 'latent' cytosol fractions. However, ethanol had no effect on the assay in the absence of cytosol fraction, or with inactive cytosol fractions. Thus, ethanol can perturb the human placental GnRH/GnRH-receptor system in vitro in two distinct ways: by inhibition of GnRH binding to receptor, and by dissociation of complexed endogenous GnRH-like factor(s) from a GnRH-binding protein. It is postulated that high alcohol consumption in vivo may interfere with placental GnRH secretion/action and affect placental secretion of factors important to the establishment and maintenance of pregnancy.