The expression of aromatase, the enzyme responsible for estrogen biosynthesis, has been studied in THP-1 cells of human mononuclear leukemic origin, which exhibit high rates of aromatase activity. These cells have the capacity to differentiate in the presence of vitamin D into cells with osteoclast-like properties. Differentiated cells displayed higher rates of aromatase than undifferentiated cells, and, in both cases, activity was stimulated 10- to 20-fold by dexamethasone. Phorbol esters also increased aromatase activity, but the effect was the same in differentiated as in undifferentiated cells. In a similar fashion to adipose stromal cells, serum potentiated the response to dexamethasone but had no effect on phorbol ester-stimulated activity. By contrast to its action in adipose stromal cells, (Bu)2cAMP markedly inhibited aromatase activity of THP-1 cells, as did factors whose actions are mediated by cAMP, such as PTH and PTH-related peptide. This was true of control cells, as well as of dexamethasone- and phorbol ester-stimulated cells. Previously we have shown that type 1 cytokines as well as tumor necrosis factor-alpha stimulate aromatase activity of adipose stromal cells in the presence of dexamethasone. By contrast, interleukin-6, interleukin-11, and leukemia-inhibitory factor had no effect on aromatase activity of THP-1 cells, whereas tumor necrosis factor-alpha, oncostatin M, and platelet-derived growth factor were slightly inhibitory of aromatase activity. Exon-specific Southern analysis of rapid amplification of cDNA ends-amplified transcripts was employed to examine the distribution of the various 5'-termini of aromatase transcripts. In the control group, most of the clones contained transcripts specific for the proximal promoter II, whereas in dexamethasone-treated cells, most transcripts contained exon I.4. In the phorbol ester-treated cells, a broader spectrum of transcripts was present, with equal proportions of I.4, II, and I.3-containing clones. Additionally, one clone containing a new sequence, exon I.6, was found. This was shown to be located about 1 kb upstream of exon II. By contrast, all clones from cells treated with (Bu)2cAMP contained promoter II-specific sequences. In addition to these transcripts, two clones in the library from the dexamethasone-treated cells contained the sequence previously defined as the brain-specific sequence, 1f. In one of these, the 1f sequence was fused downstream of exon I.4, indicative that its expression likely employed promoter I.4. These results point to similarities and important differences between aromatase expression in THP-1 cells and other cells such as adipose stromal cells, indicative of unique regulatory pathways governing aromatase expression in these cells.