Recent evidence suggests that human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), in addition to its well-known endocrine effects on the corpus luteum, may act as a growth and differentiation factor during pregnancy. According to experimental results, its mode of action may be divided into three sequential phases. During the first phase, which begins at the blastocyst stage and lasts until the occurrence in the serum, hCG acts preferentially in a juxtacrine manner. We have used an intrauterine microdialysis system developed in our laboratory to administer low concentrations of hCG to the endometrium of women in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. HCG administration provoked profound effects on paracrine parameters of differentiation (IGFBP-1, prolactin) and implantation (LIF, M-CSF). VEGF, a cytokine important for neoangiogenesis, was significantly stimulated by hCG (P < .01), suggesting a role for hCG in the control of endometrial vascularization and placentation. The investigation of endometrial parameters of tissue remodeling revealed a significant increase of MMP-9 (P < .05) but not of TIMP-1 following hCG infusion. The second, endocrine, phase of hCG action is marked by the appearance of hCG in the maternal serum. Rising systemic hCG levels cause a very rapid elevation of serum progesterone reflecting the rescue of the corpus luteum. Other endocrine functions of hCG include its intrinsic thyrotropic activity as well as modulation of fetal testicular, ovarian, and adrenal function. The third phase may be characterized by the expression of full-length hCG/LH receptors on the trophoblasts themselves. Before the ninth week of gestation, human villous trophoblasts express a truncated hCG/LH receptor isoform (50 kDa) and are probably not responsive to hCG. Later, the expression pattern is switched to the full-length receptor (80 kDa), allowing hCG also to modulate the differentiation of the trophoblasts themselves. A special feature is the self-regulation of hCG biosynthesis that may in part explain the unique secretion profile of the hormone with peak levels during the first trimester followed by a rapid decline after the tenth week of gestation. In summary, hCG seems to have a variety of local and systemic functions in and outside the embryo-endometrial microenvironment.