Flavonols, in contrast to soybean isoflavones, are the most abundant phytoestrogens in western diets, being present in onions, beans, fruits, red wine, and tea. They may protect against atherosclerosis, inhibit certain cancer cell types, and reduce bone resorption. The most widely distributed flavonol is quercetin, which occurs mainly as its glycoside, rutin, but data are very scarce regarding the precise mechanism of action of these compounds on bone-resorbing cells at concentrations similar to those detected in human plasma. We have therefore investigated the effects of nanomolar concentrations of quercetin and rutin on the development and activity of osteoclasts in vitro compared with the effects of 17beta-estradiol. Nonadherent porcine bone marrow cells were cultured on dentine slices in the presence of 10 nM 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25(OH)2D3), with or without 10 nM quercetin, 10 nM rutin or 10 nM 17beta-estradiol for 11 days. Multinuclear TRAP+ cells that resorbed dentine (osteoclasts) developed in the presence of 1,25(OH)2D3, but their number was significantly reduced by quercetin, rutin, and 17beta-estradiol (P < 0.05). Like 17beta-estradiol, both flavonols also significantly reduced resorption (P<0.05) as assessed by the size of pits resorbed on dentine slices. Osteoclasts and osteoclast progenitors contained estrogen receptor alpha (ERalpha), ERbeta, and RANK proteins. Both flavonols increased nuclear ERbeta protein and decreased ERalpha protein of osteoclast progenitors. Moreover, rutin reduced RANK protein, whereas 17beta-oestradiol and quercetin promoted apoptosis by cleavage of caspase-8 and caspase-3. All the effects of flavonols were reversed by 1 microM ICI 182,780, an estrogen antagonist. Thus, the anti-resorbing properties of flavonols are mainly mediated by ER proteins through the inhibition of RANK protein or the activation of caspases.