Estrogen receptor (ER) expression in human lung has been understudied, particularly in light of its potential biological importance in the female lung cancer epidemic. Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction was used to probe mRNA expression of wild-type ERalpha and ERbeta and their splice variants in human bronchogenic tumor and adjacent nontumor specimens. In tumor tissue from 13 women and 13 men, ERalpha was expressed in 85% of women versus 15% in men [P=0.001]. ERbeta was expressed equally in tumors from women versus men [92% vs. 69%, P=ns]. Both ERalpha and beta forms were expressed simultaneously in the lung tumors of 77% of women versus 15% of men [P=0.005]. Among adjacent nontumor lung specimens, 31% of the women expressed ERalpha mRNA versus 0% of men [P=0.101], and 39% of women expressed ERbeta mRNA versus 31% of men [P=ns]; only one woman and no men expressed both ERalpha and beta in nontumor tissue. Females expressed ERalpha [P=0.017], ERbeta [P=0.013], and ERalpha+beta [P=0.002] more frequently in tumor versus nontumor tissue, whereas in males expression of ERalpha, beta and both alpha+beta was not clearly different for tumor versus nontumor tissue. In specimens expressing ERalpha mRNA, the transcript lacking exon 7 (delta7) was the major splice variant with varying contributions from the transcripts delta4, delta3+4, delta5 and others unidentified. Alternative splicing of ERbeta mRNA was observed, but not to as great an extent as for ERalpha mRNA. ERalpha promoter usage in tumors varied among individuals. When the ER receptors were co-expressed in tumors, ERalpha was quantitatively more abundant in the majority of cases than ERbeta. Within this small group of 26 patients, no correlation was found between age, smoking history, plasma nicotine, cotinine, estradiol concentrations or histopathologic type with tumor or nontumor estrogen receptor status of any type. However, several positive correlations imply that: (1) ERalpha expression occurs more often in the lungs of women than men; (2) ERbeta is expressed with approximately equal frequency in the lungs of both genders; and (3) tumors display a higher frequency of both receptor types than nontumors in women. We hypothesize that these putative gender-dependent differences in ERalpha and ERbeta expression could contribute unique phenotypic characteristics to lung cancer development or progression in women.