To investigate the mechanisms involved in the in vivo aldosterone selectivity of the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR), we studied the respective contribution of the receptor and the enzyme 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11HSD), which converts glucocorticoids into inactive metabolites. Using a cotransfection assay in CV-1 cells, aldosterone activated mouse mammary tumor virus promoter through human MR (hMR) with an ED50 of 0.01 nM. An at least 100-fold higher concentration of cortisol (F), corticosterone (B), or dexamethasone was required to obtain half-maximum transactivation, indicating a functional preference of hMR for aldosterone over glucocorticoids. The catalytic activity of 11HSD was analyzed using HPLC by measuring the tritiated metabolites produced in CV-1 and COS cells. Both cell types displayed a significant dehydrogenase activity (20 fmol/10 min.10(3) cells) inhibitable by carbenoxolone, but no detectable reductase activity. In this model, B was more rapidly metabolized than F. Carbenoxolone treatment of hMR-transfected CV-1 cells did not result in a shift of the dose-response transactivation curves of B and F toward lower concentrations, ruling out the implication of 11HSD in the aldosterone MR selectivity of these conditions. Despite similar affinity constants of aldosterone and glucocorticoids for the hMR, kinetic experiments showed that the off-rate of aldosterone from hMR was 5 times lower than that of glucocorticoids, pointing to an intrinsic discriminating property of the receptor. Therefore, we propose that in addition to 11HSD, MR plays an active role in the mechanism of aldosterone selectivity.