Granulosa cells of antral follicles both proliferate and undergo differentiation. The aim of the present work was to study the mechanisms controlling the balance between proliferation and differentiation in granulosa cells during the development of antral follicles in the ewe. For this purpose, the responses of both activities to insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and to FSH in vitro were studied comparatively in granulosa cells from small antral follicles (1-3 mm in diameter) and large antral follicles (5-7 mm in diameter). In granulosa cells from large follicles, IGF-I enhanced both basal and FSH-induced progesterone secretion after a 24-h delay period; this effect was lower and further delayed in cells from small follicles. Reciprocally, FSH increased IGF-I-stimulated progesterone secretion in cells from large follicles. IGF-I increased the thymidine labeling index of granulosa cells from small follicles within 24 h and enhanced cell multiplication. In cells from large follicles, this effect was lower and delayed, but IGF-I also enhanced cell survival. Culture at high density of plating inhibited the proliferative response of both types of cells to IGF-I. FSH was without effect on granulosa cell multiplication. These results suggest that the cytodifferentiative and the growth-promoting effects of IGF-I are clearly distinct. We propose that they would be exerted on two distinct granulosa cell subpopulations, nonproliferating and proliferating cells, respectively. Differences in the responsiveness of cells from small and large follicles could be related to differences in the proportion of these two cellular subtypes.