The special extract ERr 731 from the roots of Rheum rhaponticum is the major constituent of Phytoestrol N which is used for the alleviation of menopausal symptoms. Recently, we demonstrated that ERr 731 and its aglycones trans-rhapontigenin and desoxyrhapontigenin as single test substances do not activate the estrogen receptors-alpha (ERalpha) in human endometrial adenoarcinoma cells. However, these substances together with the structurally related hydroxystilbenes cis-rhapontigenin, resveratrol and piceatannol activated the ERbeta-dependent reporter gene activity. To investigate if these substance are tissue selective ER activators, ERr 731 and the single test substances were examined in bone-derived U2OS cells stably expressing ERalpha or transiently expressing ERbeta. In the ERalpha expressing U2OS cells, a weak, but statistically significant ERalpha-coupled luciferase activity was detected with ERr 731 and desoxyrhapontigenin which was 10-times lower than with 10(8) M 17 beta-estradiol. In the ERbeta test system, all test substances significantly induced the luciferase activity in a magnitude comparable to 17beta-estradiol. All effects were abolished with the pure ER antagonist ICI 182 780, indicating an ER-specific effect. Intracellular actions were also examined with the glycosylated ERr 731 constituents rhaponticin and desoxyrhaponticin. Treatment of U2OS cells with defined mixtures of both glycosides resulted in a reporter gene activity comparable to that of ERr 731, thereby providing evidence for the existence of cellular uptake mechanisms for glycosylated hydroxystilbenes. This report confirms the strong ERbeta-dependent activity of ERr 731 and provides evidence for a tissue selective ER agonistic activity by ERr 731 and its aglycones, as demonstrated by the activation of ERalpha in bone cells but not in endometrial cells.