The estrogenic action of the prototype natural phytoestrogen coumestrol was examined in rats in in vitro and in vivo tests. To establish the binding specificity of coumestrol and its relation to biological activities, saturation analyses and uterine weight assays were performed. These assays indicated that coumestrol competitively inhibited binding to the estrogen receptor and induced increases in uterine weight in keeping with its estrogen receptor affinity constant. Most importantly, coumestrol was uterotrophic when incorporated in a semipurified diet at natural dietary concentrations. Significant increases occurred in both uterine wet weight and dry weight, indicating that coumestrol produces true uterine growth. Effects appeared to be cumulative, raising questions of time-related interactions with other estrogen-sensitive mechanisms and clearance of isoflavonoids. Coumestrol induced uterine growth over a 90-hour period at dietary concentrations of 0.01 to 0.1%. Lower doses not active over this period were active when provided over a longer period of time: a 0.005% concentration was not active over a 90-hour period, but was active when provided over a 180-hour period. Coumestrol-induced uterine growth was accompanied by the induction of cytosolic progestin receptors and increases in nuclear estrogen binding. Scatchard analyses verified that these changes were due to changes in receptor number. These studies show that the naturally occurring phytoestrogens have dramatic estrogenic effects at natural dietary levels. These actions may be expressed via traditional receptor-mediated actions and therefore may have the same implications for development, health, and disease as do the steroidal estrogens produced by the body. Because rats have no sex hormone-binding globulin, further studies must be conducted in humans. However, these findings suggest that the natural dietary phytoestrogen coumestrol is a potent estrogen that must be considered in calculating the total estrogenic load to which humans are exposed during normal life.