At midgestation in the baboon, 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11beta-HSD) catalysed interconversion of cortisol (F) and cortisone (E) during transuterine passage favors the formation of F. Because the site(s) of oxidation/reduction of F and E are not clear, the present study compared F-E interconversion in placenta, decidua and chorion in vitro. In addition, because the reduction of E to F is catalysed only by the 11beta-HSD-1, we also determined whether the mRNA for this enzyme was expressed in baboon placenta, including placental syncytiotrophoblast cells; the site of fetal-maternal exchange. Placentas were obtained on day 100 of gestation (term = day 184) and villous tissue, decidua and chorion isolated, minced in HBSS and incubated (300-400 mg) in duplicate for 0.1-24 h in Medium 199 containing 10% fetal bovine serum and [3H]F and [14C]E. Radiolabelled F and E were purified from incubates and the percentage conversion of F to E and E to F was calculated. In decidua, mean (+/- SE; n = 3) conversion of E to F (69 +/- 2%) was greater than oxidation of F to E (26 +/- 2%). Conversion of E to F in placenta (50 +/- 1%) and chorion (39 +/- 9%) was also extensive and greater than or equal to that for the oxidation of F to E (39 +/- 4% and 32 +/- 4%, respectively). The apparent ratio of 11beta-HSD reductive/oxidative activity was maintained when respective tissues from four baboons were incubated for 18 h with or without 4.4 microM excess radioinert substrate. Expression of 11beta-HSD-1 mRNA was determined by Northern blot by hybridization of poly (A) + -enriched RNA from tissues obtained at midgestation with [32P]labelled human 11beta-HSD-1 cDNA. This cDNA hybridized to a single mRNA species of 1.6 kb in decidua, whole placental villous tissue and syncytiotrophoblast cells, but not to RNA isolated from fetal baboon kidney. The results of the present study demonstrate that at midgestation in the baboon, 11beta-HSD activity in intact placenta and decidua in vitro favored the formation of F from E, presumably catalysed by the 11beta-HSD-1 enzyme protein, the mRNA for which is present in placental syncytiotrophoblasts. Moreover, based on overall mass and extensive vascularity, we suggest that the net formation of F from E during transuterine passage in vivo at this stage of gestation results from the 11beta-HSD-1 in the syncytiotrophoblast cells of the baboon placenta.