Melatonin, the hormonal product of the pineal gland, has been shown to inhibit the development of mammary tumors in vivo and the proliferation of MCF-7 human breast cancer cells in vitro by mechanisms not yet identified. However, previous studies have demonstrated that melatonin significantly decreased estrogen-binding activity and the expression of immunoreactive estrogen receptor (ER) in MCF-7 breast cancer cells. To determine the mechanism(s) by which melatonin regulates ER expression in MCF-7 cells, the relationship between the level of steady state ER mRNA and the rate of ER gene transcription were examined in response to melatonin. Physiological concentrations of melatonin decreased steady state levels of ER mRNA expression in a dose- and time-specific manner. This decrease was not dependent upon the presence of estrogen since similar decreases in steady state ER mRNA levels were seen in MCF-7 cells cultured in both complete and estrogen-depleted media. The decreased expression of ER mRNA in response to melatonin appears to be directly related to the suppression of transcription of the ER gene. This regulation is independent of the synthesis of new proteins, as cycloheximide was unable to block the melatonin-induced decrease of steady-state ER mRNA levels. The down-regulation of ER by melatonin appears to not be mediated via a direct interaction with the ER and subsequent feedback on its own expression, since melatonin treatment did not alter the transcriptional regulatory ability of the fully activated wild type ER or a constitutively active hormone-binding domain-deleted ER variant. In addition, the stability of the ER transcript was unaffected by melatonin. Thus, it appears that the antiproliferative actions of this pineal indoleamine are mediated, at least in part, through the suppression of the transcription of the ER gene in MCF-7 human breast cancer cells.