Bone mass and bone turnover are under genetic control. Restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) at the vitamin D receptor (VDR) gene locus have been recently correlated to bone mineral density (BMD) and rate of bone loss. However, agreement on this relationship is not universal. The existence of ethnical and environmental differences between populations, a health-based selection bias in several previous studies, and the involvement of other genes could explain these discordant findings. In this study, we examined the relationship of VDR and estrogen receptor (ER) gene RFLPs with lumbar spine and upper femur BMD in 426 Italian postmenopausal women, 57.7 +/- 0.4 yr old (144 normal, 106 osteopenic, and 176 osteoporotic). VDR gene RFLPs for ApaI, Bsm I, and TaqI restriction endonucleases and ER RFLPs for PvuII and XbaI restriction endonucleases were assessed by Southern blotting analysis and were indicated, respectively, as A-a, B-b, T-t, P-p, and X-x (uppercase letters signifying the absence and lowercase letters the presence of the restriction site). After correcting for potential confounding factors (age, height, weight, age since menopause, osteophytosis, and facet joint osteoarthritis), a statistically significant VDR genotype effect on lumbar BMD (P = 0.01, analysis of covariance), but not on femoral BMD, was detected, with subjects in AABBtt genotype showing a 13% lower BMD than those with aabbTT genotype (P < 0.05, Tukey's test). Moreover, a statistically significant prevalence of AABBtt genotype in osteoporotics, and of AabbTT and aabbTT genotypes in nonosteoporotics, were detected. Conversely, there was no significant relationship of ER genotype to either lumbar or femoral BMD, even though a trend for higher BMD values in women with the ER PP genotype (with respect to those with ER pp genotype) was detected. When mean lumbar BMD was calculated for women grouped by ER and VDR genotype, we observed a significant difference between those within the 2 opposite associations AABBtt-PPXX and aabbTT-ppxx (0.71 +/- 0.05 vs. 0.97 +/- 0.03 g/cm2, P < 0.05 Tukey's test). These results are consistent with a segregation of the VDR AABBtt genotype with a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, in the Italian female population. The introduction of another variable, the ER genotype, in the analysis of VDR genetic determination of BMD, may represent a useful model in the identification of patients at risk of developing a multigenic disorder like osteoporosis.