Two experiments were conducted to investigate endocrine mechanisms by which the immune/inflammatory stimulus endotoxin disrupts the follicular phase of the estrous cycle of the ewe. In both studies, endotoxin was infused i.v. (300 ng/kg per hour) for 26 h beginning 12 h after withdrawal of progesterone to initiate the follicular phase. Experiment 1 sought to pinpoint which endocrine step or steps in the preovulatory sequence are compromised by endotoxin. In sham-infused controls, estradiol rose progressively from the time of progesterone withdrawal until the LH/FSH surges and estrous behavior, which began approximately 48 h after progesterone withdrawal. Endotoxin interrupted the preovulatory estradiol rise and delayed or blocked the LH/FSH surges and estrus. Experiment 2 tested the hypothesis that endotoxin suppresses the high-frequency LH pulses necessary to stimulate the preovulatory estradiol rise. All 6 controls exhibited high-frequency LH pulses typically associated with the preovulatory estradiol rise. As in the first experiment, endotoxin interrupted the estradiol rise and delayed or blocked the LH/FSH surges and estrus. LH pulse patterns, however, differed among the six endotoxin-treated ewes. Three showed markedly disrupted LH pulses compared to those of controls. The three remaining experimental ewes expressed LH pulses similar to those of controls; yet the estradiol rise and preovulatory LH surge were still disrupted. Our results demonstrate that endotoxin invariably interrupts the preovulatory estradiol rise and delays or blocks the subsequent LH and FSH surges in the ewe. Mechanistically, endotoxin can interfere with the preovulatory sequence of endocrine events via suppression of LH pulsatility, although other processes such as ovarian responsiveness to gonadotropin stimulation appear to be disrupted as well.