Male cystic fibrosis (CF) patients survive longer than females and lung exacerbations in CF females vary during the estrous cycle. Estrogen has been reported to reduce the height of the airway surface liquid (ASL) in female CF bronchial epithelium. Here we investigated the effect of 17β-estradiol on the airway surface liquid height and ion transport in normal (NuLi-1) and CF (CuFi-1) bronchial epithelial monolayers. Live cell imaging using confocal microscopy revealed that airway surface liquid height was significantly higher in the non-CF cells compared to the CF cells. 17β-estradiol (0.1-10 nM) reduced the airway surface liquid height in non-CF and CF cells after 30 min treatment. Treatment with the nuclear-impeded Estrogen Dendrimer Conjugate mimicked the effect of free estrogen by reducing significantly the airway surface liquid height in CF and non-CF cells. Inhibition of chloride transport or basolateral potassium recycling decreased the airway surface liquid height and 17β-estradiol had no additive effect in the presence of these ion transporter inhibitors. 17β-estradiol decreased bumetanide-sensitive transepithelial short-circuit current in non-CF cells and prevented the forskolin-induced increase in ASL height. 17β-estradiol stimulated an amiloride-sensitive transepithelial current and increased ouabain-sensitive basolateral short-circuit current in CF cells. 17β-estradiol increased PKCδ activity in CF and non-CF cells. These results demonstrate that estrogen dehydrates CF and non-CF ASL, and these responses to 17β-estradiol are non-genomic rather than involving the classical nuclear estrogen receptor pathway. 17β-estradiol acts on the airway surface liquid by inhibiting cAMP-mediated chloride secretion in non-CF cells and increasing sodium absorption via the stimulation of PKCδ, ENaC and the Na(+)/K(+)ATPase in CF cells.