Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) such as tamoxifen are effective in the treatment of many estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers and have also proven to be effective in the prevention of breast cancer in women at high risk for the disease. The comparative abilities of tamoxifen versus raloxifene in breast cancer prevention are currently being compared in the Study of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene trial. To better understand the actions of these compounds in breast cancer, we have examined their effects on the expression of approximately 12,000 genes, using Affymetrix GeneChip microarrays, with quantitative PCR verification in many cases, categorizing their actions as agonist, antagonist, or partial agonist/antagonist. Analysis of gene stimulation and inhibition by the SERMs trans-hydroxytamoxifen (TOT) and raloxifene (Ral) or ICI 182,780 (ICI) and by estradiol (E2) in estrogen receptor-containing MCF-7 human breast cancer cells revealed that (a) TOT was the most E2-like of the three compounds, (b) all three compounds either partially or fully antagonized the action of E2 on most genes, with the order of antagonist activity being ICI > Ral > TOT, (c) TOT and Ral, but not ICI, displayed partial agonist/partial antagonist activity on a number of E2-regulated genes, (d) several stimulatory cell cycle-related genes were down-regulated exclusively by ICI, (e) the estrogen-like activity of Ral nearly always overlapped with that of TOT, indicating that Ral has little unique agonist activity different from that of TOT, and (f) some genes were specifically up-regulated by TOT but not Ral, ICI, or E2. Hence, gene expression profiling can discern fundamental differences among SERMs and provides insight into the distinct biologies of TOT, Ral, and ICI in breast cancer.