Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfotransferase (DHEA ST) catalyzes the sulfation of DHEA and other hydroxysteroids. DHEA ST enzymatic activity in individual human liver biopsy samples has been shown to vary over a five-fold range, and frequency distribution histograms are bimodal, with approximately 25% of subjects included in a high activity subgroup. We set out to characterize the molecular basis for variation in human liver DHEA ST activity. The first step involved performing quantitative Western analysis of cytosol preparations from 92 human liver samples that had been phenotyped with regard to level of DHEA ST enzymatic activity. There was a highly significant correlation (r(s) = 0.635, P < 0.0001) between levels of DHEA ST activity and immunoreactive protein. We next attempted to determine whether the expression of DHEA ST might be controlled, in part, by a genetic polymorphism. DNA was isolated from three "low" and three "high" DHEA ST activity liver samples. Exons and the 5'-flanking region of the DHEA ST gene (STD) were amplified for each of these samples with the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). When compared with "wild type" STD sequence, some of the samples contained a T --> C transition at DHEA ST cDNA nucleotide 170, located within exon 2, resulting in a Met 57 --> Thr change in amino acid. Other samples contained an A --> T transversion at nucleotide 557 within STD exon 4 that resulted in a Glu 186 --> Val change. STD exons 2 and 4 were then sequenced for DNA isolated from an additional 87 liver samples that had been phenotyped with regard to level of DHEA ST enzymatic activity. The allele frequency for the exon 2 polymorphism in these samples was 0.027, whereas that for the exon 4 polymorphism was 0.038, but neither polymorphism was systematically related to the level of enzyme activity in these samples. Transient expression in COS-1 cells of cDNA that contained the nucleotide 170 and 557 polymorphisms, either separately or together, resulted in decreased expression of both DHEA ST enzymatic activity and level of immunoreactive protein, but only when the nucleotide 557 variant was present. Identification of common genetic polymorphisms within STD will now make it possible to test the hypothesis that those polymorphisms might alter in vivo expression and/or function of this important human steroid-metabolizing enzyme.