The present study determined whether estrogen has a role in regulating the P450 cholesterol side-chain cleavage enzyme (P450scc) and/or de novo/deesterification cholesterol pathways involved in progesterone biosynthesis within human syncytiotrophoblasts. Human placental syncytiotrophoblasts were cultured for 48 h with estradiol, and P450scc activity was determined by the formation of progesterone from 25-hydroxycholesterol. Estradiol at 10(-7) or 10(-6) M and 25-hydroxycholesterol increased mean (+/- SE) progesterone production by syncytiotrophoblasts (ng/0.5 x 10(6) cells) to a value (19.2 +/- 1.1) that was 104% (p < 0.001) higher than that of the untreated controls (9.4 +/- 0.8) and 52% higher (p < 0.001) than with 25-hydroxycholesterol alone (12.6 +/- 0.9). The stimulation of progesterone secretion apparently was not the result of a change in progesterone metabolism to its principal metabolite, because 20alpha-hydroxypregn-4-en-3-one represented a minor secretory component (0.7-1.7 ng/0.5 x 10(6) cells) under these conditions, and levels were not substantially altered by estrogen. In contrast to the stimulatory effect of estradiol on P450scc activity, estrogen did not alter either the P450scc mRNA levels or the activities of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme-A reductase and cholesterol ester hydrolase-rate-limiting enzymes for the de novo and deesterification pathways, respectively, for cholesterol formation in syncytiotrophoblasts in culture. Collectively, these results indicate that estrogen regulates the P450scc component of the progesterone biosynthetic pathway, which we suggest signals functional/biochemical differentiation of syncytiotrophoblasts during primate pregnancy.