Estrone and estradiol concentrations in breast tumor tissue are an order of magnitude higher than circulating plasma levels in postmenopausal women with breast cancer. Local production of estrogen in the neoplastic tissue is one of several possible explanations for this plasma/tissue gradient. This study evaluated breast tumor estrogen production via the estrone sulfate to estrone (sulfatase) pathway and compared this with the androstenedione to estrone (aromatase) system in human and rodent mammary tumors. Estrogen production from estrone sulfate was related linearly with time and tissue concentrations, exhibited an apparent Km of 20 microM, and produced a linear Eadie-Hofstee kinetic plot consistent with a single class of enzymatic sites. Measurement of sulfatase in 35 human breast tumors using enzyme saturating conditions revealed estrone production ranging from 0.8-125 mumol/g protein . h. The corresponding range in host mammary tumors was 3.5-7.1 mumol/g protein . h. In human breast tumors, sulfatase activity did not correlate with the levels of estrogen receptor or progesterone receptor. Comparison of sulfatase with aromatase activity in human tumors at physiological levels of substrate revealed estrone formation via sulfatase of 2.8 pmol estrone produced/g protein . h, while aromatase produced only 0.27 pmol/g protein . h. In rat mammary tumors, sulfatase activity was similar to that in human tumors, whereas aromatase activity could not be detected, even with a highly sensitive assay. Thus, estrone sulfatase appears to be the enzyme primarily responsible for intratissue estrone production in hormone-dependent breast carcinomas.