The expression of aromatase in human breast tumors has been studied by the reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) method on 70 breast tissue specimens. An RT-PCR analysis using two oligonucleotide primers derived from the exon II of the human aromatase gene revealed that aromatase mRNA was detected in all but three tissue specimens. Furthermore, primer-directed RT-PCR was performed to determine the exon I usage in aromatase mRNA in these breast tumor specimens. The analysis has revealed that exons I.3 and PII are the two major exon Is present in aromatase mRNA isolated from breast tumors, suggesting that promoters I.3 and II are the major promoters driving aromatase expression in breast cancer and surrounding adipose stromal cells. The RT-PCR analysis also detected two products, I.3A (334 bp in length) and I.3B (222 bp in length), when it was carried out using a primer derived from exon I.3 and a reverse primer derived from exon II. The nucleotide sequences of these products have been determined and indicate that I.3A contains a region which was previously thought to be an intron. In addition, RT-PCR analyses of RNA isolated from eight pairs of breast tumor and neighboring normal tissue specimens were performed to evaluate the exon I usage and the distribution of I.3A- and I.3B-containing aromatase RNA messages in breast tumor and neighboring normal tissues. The results suggest that I.3B- and I.3A-containing messages are mainly present in breast tumor and neighboring normal tissues, respectively. Finally, the exon I/promoter usage for aromatase expression in eight cell lines (skin fibroblast, MCF-7, MDA-MB-231, T-47D, SK-BR-3, JAR, OVCAR-3, and human adipose stromal cells) was examined by primer-directed RT-PCR analyses. These studies provide a basis for further evaluation of the control mechanism of aromatase expression and estrogen biosynthesis in breast tumors.