It is known that steroids can induce cell surface receptor aggregation followed by activation of receptor and nonreceptor tyrosine kinases. It has been shown recently that 17beta-estradiol (E2) can stimulate the Src/p21ras/mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway in breast cancer cells, and this effect is supposed to mediate the E2-induced stimulation of breast cancer cell proliferation, possibly via activation of the c-fos and c-jun early genes or of genes involved in cell cycle control. Here we demonstrate the existence of an alternative mechanism of the cancer-promoting effect of E2. Human breast cancer cells (MCF-7) were exposed to the known proapoptotic agent vitamin E succinate (VES), added alone or together with different concentrations of E2. E2 conjugated with bovine serum albumin (E2-BSA), which cannot cross the plasma membrane of living cells, was also used in some experiments to assess whether E2 acted on the cell surface or at intracellular receptors. Apoptosis was analyzed by fluorescence-activated cell sorting after cell staining with propidium iodide and FITC-labeled annexin V. E2 showed a concentration-dependent stimulatory effect on spontaneous apoptosis but inhibited the VES-induced apoptosis. However, effects produced by the same molar concentrations of E2 were different when the hormone was free and when it was used in the form of the E2-BSA conjugate. The effects of E2 and E2-BSA were sensitive to genistein, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. These data show that E2 modulates apoptosis of breast cancer cells, probably acting both at the cell surface and inside the cells. Tyrosine phosphorylation is involved in the signaling pathways mediating this E2 effect.