Pathways of testosterone metabolism in tissue slices and cell suspensions of human benign hyperplastic prostate (BPH) tissue and human prostate cancer cell lines (DU145, HPC-36M, PC-3/MA2 and LNCaP) were investigated. Thin layer chromatography analysis was used to identify the following tritiated metabolites: testosterone, 5 alpha-dihydrostestosterone (DHT), 5 alpha-androstane-3 alpha/3 beta-17 beta-diol (androstanediols), 4-androstene-3,17-dione (androstenedione) and 5 alpha-androstanedione. The predominant pathway for testosterone metabolism in BPH was via 5 alpha-reductase producing 5 alpha-dihydrotestosterone (71% and 75% total metabolites in slices and suspensions incubated for 24 h, respectively). The cancer cell lines DU145 and HPC-36M resembled BPH by metabolizing testosterone predominantly to DHT (68% and 82% total metabolites, respectively), although the rate of metabolism was much lower in the cell lines (0.099 and 0.05 pmol testosterone/mg protein/h in DU145 and HPC-36M) compared to the BPH cell suspensions (6.4 pmol testosterone/mg protein/h). In contrast, PC-3/MA2 contained high 17 beta-HSD activity forming large amounts of 4-androstene-3,17-dione (84% total metabolites), converting testosterone at a rate faster (12.8 pmol testosterone/mg protein/h) than the BPH cell suspensions. LNCaP rapidly converted testosterone exclusively to a glucuronide conjugate (7.4 pmol testosterone/mg protein/h), although after incubation with [3H]-4-androstene-3,17-dione, 5 alpha-reductase activity was demonstrated. LNCaP was the only cell line whose growth and colony-forming ability was stimulated by testosterone and DHT. BPH and all the cell lines tested had 5 alpha-reductase activity, but only the prostate tissue and the cell lines DU145 and HPC-36M converted testosterone predominantly to DHT.