The mechanism of inhibition of the rat types 1 and 2 5alpha-reductase by finasteride was investigated using recombinantly expressed enzymes. These studies revealed that finasteride is a potent, reversible inhibitor of the rat type 1 5alpha-reductase with Ki=10.2+/-1.3 nM. Finasteride is a potent inhibitor of the rat type 2; however, in this case the compound binds to the type 2 isozyme-NADPH complex to form a ternary complex with Ki=1.19+/-0.10 nM, which then rearranges to a high affinity complex (E:I) with a pseudo first order rate constant of 1.62+/-0.22 x 10(-3)/s. The second order rate constant is k3/Ki=1.37+/-0.31 x 10(6) M/s. Heat denaturation of the (type 2 enzyme:inhibitor) complex releases dihydrofinasteride and presumably the NADP+-adduct previously identified with the human 5alpha-reductases. The effects of finasteride were also studied in intact COS cells transiently expressing the rat types 1 and 2 5alpha-reductase. Results with whole cell assays confirm differences in mechanism of inhibition of rat types 1 and 2 5alpha-reductase by finasteride.