Aromatase is present in human breast tumors and in breast cancer cell lines suggesting the possibility of in-situ estrogen production via the androstenedione to estrone and estradiol pathway. However, proof of the biologic relevance of aromatase in breast cancer tissue requires the demonstration that this enzyme mediates biologic effects on cell proliferation. Accordingly, we studied the effects of the aromatase substrate, androstenedione, on the rate of proliferation of wild-type and aromatase-transfected MCF-7 breast cancer cells. Androstenedione did not increase cell growth in wild-type MCF-7 cells which contained relatively low aromatase activity and produced 4-fold more estrone than estradiol. In contrast, aromatase-transfected cells contained higher amounts of aromatase, produced predominantly estradiol, and responded to androstenedione with enhanced growth. An aromatase inhibitor fadrozole hydrochloride, blocked the proliferative effects of androstenedione providing evidence for the role of aromatase in this process. As further evidence of the requirement for aromatase, cells transfected with the neomycin resistance expression plasmid but lacking the aromatase cDNA did not respond to androstenedione. These studies provide evidence that aromatase may have a biologic role for in-situ synthesis of estrogens in breast cancer tissue.