Twenty years ago it was believed that pubertal growth was stimulated by testicular androgen in boys and by adrenal androgen in girls. Estrogen, which was used to inhibit growth in excessively tall girls, was not thought to have growth-promoting effects. We hypothesized that estrogen has a biphasic effect on epiphyseal growth, with maximal stimulation at low levels. We showed that the administration of low doses of estrogen, corresponding to a serum estradiol level of about 4 pg/ml (15 pmol/l) caused more than a 60% increase over the prepubertal growth rate in both boys and girls. To test the hypothesis that estrogen is the principal mediator of the pubertal growth spurt in boys, we administered the aromatase inhibitor, testolactone, to boys with familial male-limited precocious puberty. Testolactone produced near normalization of both growth velocity and bone maturation, despite levels of serum testosterone that remained within the adult male range. The observation that low levels of estrogen stimulate growth and bone maturation suggested that estrogen might explain the more rapid epiphyseal maturation of prepubertal girls compared to boys. To determine whether prepubertal girls have higher estrogen levels than prepubertal boys, we developed an ultrasensitive recombinant cell bioassay for estrogen with a sensitivity of 0.02 pg/ml (0.07 pmol/l) estradiol equivalents. Prepubertal girls had approximately eight-fold higher levels of serum estradiol than did prepubertal boys (0.6 +/- 0.6 pg/ml (SD) (2.2 +/- 2.2 pmol/l) vs 0.08 +/- 0.2 pg/ml (0.29 +/- 0.73 pmol/l), P < 0.05). We concluded that the pubertal growth spurt of both sexes is driven primarily by estrogen, and that the more rapid epiphyseal maturation of prepubertal girls (vs boys) may be explained by their higher estradiol levels.