Experiments were carried out to determine the effect of different macromolecules on the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)-induced maturation of mouse oocytes in culture. Cumulus cell-enclosed oocytes (CEO) were isolated from gonadotropin-primed mice and maintained in meiotic arrest for 17-18 h with the cAMP analogue, dibutyryl cAMP (dbcAMP). Germinal vesicle breakdown (GVB) was stimulated by the addition of FSH. Medium was supplemented with either no macromolecule or with varying concentrations of polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP), polyvinylalcohol (PVA), crystallized bovine serum albumin (BSA), or fetal bovine serum (FBS). Oocyte maturation in all FSH-free cultures occurred at a frequency of about 30% or below. High frequencies of maturation were achieved when FSH was added to macromolecule-free medium or to cultures containing PVP, PVA, or BSA. Crystallized BSA was the most effective of these in supporting stimulation of maturation (94% GVB at 3 mg/ml, compared with 72-74% with synthetic polymer-supplemented or macromolecule-free media). The BSA effect was not due to contaminating fatty acids, and a less pure fraction V BSA was not as effective in supporting FSH-induced maturation. FBS suppressed FSH stimulation of maturation in a dose-dependent fashion. Sera from pigs, goats, horses, and rats were also inhibitory, but bovine calf serum (BCS) permitted a high maturation frequency (80% GVB). When added to medium containing either FBS or BCS, crystallized BSA had no effect on FSH-stimulated maturation, but fraction V BSA suppressed maturation in both serum-supplemented media. Under no conditions did FSH stimulate maturation in cumulus cell-free oocytes. These results demonstrate that hormone-induced oocyte maturation is supported in vitro by nonprotein polymers as well as BSA and that the behavior of the oocyte-cumulus cell complex depends on the purity of the BSA sample. In addition, serum contains inhibitory factors that suppress the positive response to FSH. Thus, the choice of macromolecular supplement is of critical importance when testing the hormone responsiveness of isolated cumulus cell-enclosed oocytes in culture.