The present study determined if the decline in placental progesterone (P4) production that results from administration of the antiestrogen ethamoxytriphetol (MER-25) to pregnant baboons results from a change in placental low density lipoprotein (LDL) uptake and/or degradation. Pregnant baboons (Papio anubis) were untreated (n = 10) or received MER-25 (25 mg/kg BW, orally; n = 10) daily on days 140-170 of gestation (term, 184 days). Placentas were removed by cesarean section on day 170 of gestation, and villous tissue was dispersed with 0.1% collagenase at 37 C for 40 min. Placental cells (10(6)) were incubated in medium 199 (pH 7.2) for 12 h at 37 C with increasing amounts (5-100 micrograms) of [125I]LDL, with or without a 100-fold excess of unlabeled baboon LDL. Mean (+/- SE) peripheral serum P4 concentrations on days 140-170 of gestation were 51% lower (P less than 0.01) in MER-25-treated (5.7 +/- 0.3 ng/ml) than in untreated (11.6 +/- 0.5 ng/ml) baboons. The uptake of LDL was 56% lower (P less than 0.01) in placental cells from antiestrogen-treated (6.3 +/- 1.6 ng/micrograms cell protein) than in those from untreated (14.4 +/- 1.9 ng/micrograms cell protein) baboons. The dissociation constants for placental LDL uptake, as assessed by Scatchard analysis, however, were similar in untreated (0.80 microgram/ml) and MER-25-treated (0.76 microgram/ml) animals. The amount of [125I]LDL concomitantly degraded by cells from baboons that received MER-25 was 54% of that degraded by cells from untreated controls. The relative decline in LDL degradation by cells of antiestrogen-treated baboons was proportionate to the decline in overall LDL uptake. The results indicate, therefore, that antiestrogen treatment decreased the amount of placental LDL uptake, but did not change the affinity for the lipoprotein. We suggest that the decline in placental P4 production elicited in pregnant baboons by antiestrogen results, at least in part, from subnormal LDL uptake. We propose that one of the mechanisms by which estrogen regulates the biosynthesis of P4 by the placenta during baboon pregnancy is by increasing receptor-mediated placental cell uptake of cholesterol in the form of LDL. Estrogen, therefore, may regulate LDL uptake by the placenta and thus the availability of cholesterol for P4 biosynthesis via the LDL pathway.