Kinetics of the 2- and 4-hydroxylations of estradiol (E2) by human liver microsomal samples were studied to determine the major P450 isoform involved in these endogenous reactions. Thirty human liver microsomal samples were analysed. Metabolism of 25 microM [14C]E2 produced 2-hydroxy and 4-hydroxy derivatives with a ratio of 3.2 +/- 1.5 and a great inter-individual variation. Kinetic analysis of the 2- and 4-hydroxylations of E2 exhibited a curvilinear double reciprocal plot with an apparent Km of 15 microM. Further experiments demonstrated that alpha-naphthoflavone, testosterone and progesterone increased the 2-hydroxylation activity, suggesting the involvement of a substrate activation mechanism. These two hydroxylations of E2 were shown to be catalysed by cytochrome P450 with an apparent dissociation constant Ks of 0.8 microM. These 2- and 4-hydroxylations inter-correlated significantly (r = 0.93; N = 30). The 2-hydroxylation of E2 correlated with four monooxygenase activities known to be supported by P450 3A4/3A5, namely nifedipine oxidation (r = 0.78; N = 29); erythromycin N-demethylation (r = 0.69; N = 27), testosterone 6 beta-hydroxylation (r = 0.66; N = 25) and tamoxifen N-demethylation (r = 0.64; N = 29). On the other hand, E2-hydroxylations did not correlate with activities supported by P450 1A2 and P450 2E1. Furthermore, drugs as cyclosporin, diltiazem, triacetyl-oleandomycin and 17 alpha-ethynylestradiol inhibited more than 90% of the E2-hydroxylations at concentrations < 250 microM, while weak inhibition was shown with 500 microM cimetidine and no significant inhibition with caffeine, phenacetin and omeprazole. Finally, 2- and 4-hydroxylations of E2 correlated significantly with the content of P450 3A4/3A5 immunodetected by a monoclonal antibody anti-human P450-nifedipine (r = 0.84; N = 28). E2-hydroxylation activities were inhibited by more than 80% with polyclonal anti-human anti-P450-nifedipine. Preincubation of human liver microsomes with 100 microM gestodene (a suicide substrate of P450 3A4) inactivated this P450 isoform and accordingly allowed evaluation of the contribution of other P450 isoforms to the E2 metabolism to about 21% (+/- 17%, N = 29). All these results taken together suggest that P450 3A4/3A5 are the major forms involved in the formation of catecholestrogens in the human liver microsomes.