Estrogen antagonists are widely used in the treatment of breast cancer, and studies of their mechanism of action may provide clues to an understanding of tumor growth regulation and mechanisms of normal estrogen action. We have used human breast cancer cells in long term culture as an in vitro model to study the roles of estradiol and the antiestrogens, tamoxifen and nafoxidine, on cell growth and progesterone receptor (PgR) induction. Tamoxifen is found to have dual dose-dependent estrogenic/antiestrogenic properties. With 1 micrometer tamoxifen, cell growth and PgR induction are suppressed. These effects are reversed by estradiol. At lower doses (less than 0.1 micrometer), however, tamoxifen is a potent estrogen and rapidly induces (24--48 h) PgR, which increases 4- to 10-fold after 4--6 days and falls if tamoxifen is removed. Induction of PgR by estradiol is weaker but follows a similar time course. Tamoxifen-induced PgR is similar to that induced by estradiol; it sediments at 8S on sucrose density gradients, is a tight binder (R5020 Kd, 1.7 micrometer at 4 C and 0.87 nM at 15 C), and can be translocated to the nucleus by R5020. The dual properties of tamoxifen are not due to metabolic formation of an active antiestrogen from a prohormone precursor. In contrast, the action of the antiestrogen nafoxidine is not biphasic in MCF-7 cells; it does not induce PgR over a wide dose range and at high doses, the compound inhibits cell growth.