To evaluate whether a tumour-directed gradient in androgen levels in fatty tissue can account for the maintenance of intra-tissue oestradiol levels, androstenedione (Adione), dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), testosterone (Testo) and androstenediol (Adiol) were assayed in breast tumour tissues and in fatty tissue taken at different distances from the tumour. The concentration of Adione was significantly lower in tumour tissue (5.6 +/- 1.5 pmol/g tissue; mean +/- SEM; n = 14) than in the adjacent fatty tissue (20.4 +/- 2.2; P less than 0.005). Testo, by contrast, occurred in equal concentrations in tumour (0.80 +/- 0.11) and in adjacent fatty tissue (0.70 +/- 0.07). Adione levels tended to be lower after the menopause only in fatty tissue, not in the tumour tissue; for Testo no differences were observed between samples from pre- and postmenopausal patients. Tumour DHEA levels (57 +/- 12 pmol/g tissue) were lower than those in fatty tissue (117 +/- 17; P less than 0.02). As with Adione, fatty tissue DHEA concentrations tended to be higher in pre- than in postmenopausal patients. Adiol showed a similar pattern as Testo. For none of the aromatase substrates nor their precursors a tumour-directed gradient was observed. The concentration of Adione in breast cancer tissue is much lower than the reported Km of the aromatase system for Adione. We have concluded, therefore, that the maintenance of oestradiol concentrations in tumour tissues is not substrate-driven.