The metabolism of androstenedione (A) to estrone (E1) and 5 alpha-reduced androgens was studied in stromal cells derived from human adipose tissue from different body sites. The tissue was obtained from non-obese patients undergoing cosmetic liposuction or at the time of surgery for reduction mammoplasty. The conversion of A to E1 per 1x 10(6) cells was between 6- and 30-fold greater in the upper thigh, buttock, and flank than in the abdomen. These differences were present in primary culture and persisted to at least the third subculture. Estrogen formation in breast adipose tissue was similar to that found in cells from abdominal fat. The formation of 5 alpha-reduced metabolites (5 alpha-androstenedione, androsterone, and dihydrotestosterone) varied from patient to patient but was similar in cells from different body sites. These studies show that the regional distribution of fat may influence the metabolism of androgens in adipose tissue, with upper body fat tending to form a lower ratio of estrogens to 5 alpha-reduced androgens than lower body fat.