We determined whether the reduction in placental progesterone (P4) production observed after administration of the antiestrogen ethamoxytriphetol (MER-25) to pregnant baboons was associated with a decline in activity and/or content of the placental mitochondrial cholesterol side-chain cleavage system (P-450scc). Pregnant baboons (Papio anubis) were untreated (n = 9) or administered MER-25 (25 mg/kg BW, orally; n = 6) daily on days 140-170 of gestation (term = 184 days). Placentas were obtained by cesarean section on day 170 of gestation, and P-450scc activity and cytochrome P-450 content were determined on mitochondria-rich fractions. Administration of MER-25 to pregnant baboons resulted in a 40% reduction (P less than 0.01, by Student's t test) in the mean (+/- SE) peripheral serum P4 concentration (6.3 +/- 0.3 ng/ml) compared to that in untreated (10.4 +/- 0.3 ng/ml) baboons. P-450scc activity, as determined by formation of pregnenolone (P5) and P4 during a 30-min incubation (picomoles per mg protein), was 37% lower (P less than 0.01) in placental mitochondria obtained from MER-25-treated baboons (179.8 +/- 25.0) than in that from untreated (285.4 +/- 13.4) baboons. Mitochondrial cytochrome P-450 content, assessed by spectral analysis, was 28% lower (P less than 0.02) in antiestrogen-treated (46.7 +/- 2.1 pmol/mg protein) than in untreated (64.8 +/- 5.2 pmol/mg protein) baboons. The initial (time zero) free cholesterol content (nanomoles per mg protein) of mitochondrial-rich preparations was not significantly different in antiestrogen-treated (189.3 +/- 13.0) and untreated (225.0 +/- 15.1) animals. Collectively, these results suggest that the decline in placental P4 production observed in baboons in response to MER-25 occurs at least in part as a result of a decrease in cytochrome P-450scc activity. The loss in P-450scc activity appears to be an intramitochondrial event and not a result of depletion of the total mitochondrial cholesterol pool. We propose, therefore, that one mechanism by which estrogen may regulate the production of P4 by the placenta during primate pregnancy is via the maintenance of placental mitochondrial cytochrome P-450, the terminal oxidase of cytochrome P-450scc.