2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) is the most toxic and widely investigated dioxin congener. In utero and lactational exposure to TCDD results in developmental and reproductive defects that are the most sensitive endpoints for TCDD toxicity. TCDD has a potential to interfere with steroid metabolism, but the mechanisms by which this occurs are not well understood. In this study, we investigated the effects of TCDD on prenatal rat steroidogenesis. Pregnant Sprague-Dawley female rats were treated once with TCDD (0, 0.3 or 1 microg/kg) by gavage on embryonic day (ED) 11 and the expression levels of androgen (AR) and estrogen receptors (ER), steroidogenic enzymes (P450scc and 3beta-HSD) and four regulatory factors (StAR, SF-1, GATA-4 and Insl-3) involved in foetal Leydig cell and adrenal function were analysed on ED 19.5. Hormonal status of male foetuses was determined by measuring testicular testosterone (T) levels, plasma luteinizing hormone (LH) and corticosterone concentrations. In utero exposure to TCDD reduced intratesticular T of foetal males (significant at 0.3 microg/kg TCDD) and tended to reduce the protein expression of ERalpha and AR of foetal male rat testis. Foetal male rat plasma LH levels were significantly reduced at the dose of 1 microg/kg TCDD, while corticosterone levels tended to be increased possibly because of the TCDD-induced stress. Only minor alterations in steroidogenesis were observed in rat adrenal. mRNA expression of developmental regulatory factors was not influenced by foetal TCDD exposure, except for significantly reduced adrenal SF-1. The results demonstrate that maternal exposure to TCDD suppressed testicular steroidogenesis of 19.5-day-old foetal male Sprague-Dawley rat. The highest dose of TCDD (1 microg/kg) had also an effect on pituitary LH secretion. Our data implicate that TCDD has direct testicular and pituitary effects on foetal male rat but with different dose-responses. These changes can lead to impaired steroidogenesis and it may result in the maldevelopment of the testis and weaken masculinization.