In previous papers we provided evidence for a glucocorticoid (GC) responsive site in a highly purified rat liver plasma membrane (PM) fraction, which has proved to be osmotically active, 'right side-out' vesicles, free of CBG, glucocorticoid receptors (GR) and ATP (J. Steroid Biochem. Molec. Biol. 42 (1992) 737-756 and 757-771). This site, now called 'GC importer', mediates active transmembrane transport of corticosterone (B). Pronounced specificity, including stereo- and enantiomeric specificity, of ligand-GC importer interaction was demonstrated by competition assays using 54 different steroidal hormones and molecules. Important structural prerequisites for ligands with high specificity for the GC importer are plane C21-steroid hormones with 1-ene and/or 4-ene or 5alpha-reduced configuration, and/or OH-group(s) at C11beta>C17alpha>C21. Unexpectedly, other preferred ligands are C17alpha-ethynyl steroids like estrogens with an OH- or OCH3-group at C3 (EE2, mestranol) as well as progestins with C3-OH and 4-ene configuration (ethynodiol). C21-steroids with 11alpha-OH, 11-keto, 16alpha-CH3, 16beta-CH3, 16alpha-OH or 5beta-reduced configuration are low specificity ligands. The importer even displays different specificity for enantiomers (levonorgestrel>L-norgestrel). Altogether, the GC importer preferentially recognizes active GC and natural progestins which act as GC-antagonist (e.g. prednisolone>11beta-cortisol = B > or = progestins). Synthetic GC-agonists (e.g. dexamethasone, betamethasone, triamcinolone), most synthetic progestins, biologically inactive GC (e.g. 11alpha-cortisol, prednisone, cortisone, 11-dehydro-B), mineralocorticoids (aldosterone), natural estrogens (e.g. E1, E2, E3), DES and vitamin D3 derivatives do not interact with the GC importer. Osmotic shrinkage experiments revealed that interaction of high as well as low specificity ligands with the GC importer comprises reversible binding and transport through the PM. The ligand specificity profile of the GC importer and the GR exhibit pronounced differences, suggesting that both GC recognizing sites are different proteins. Performing immunoblotting, using specific mono- and polyclonal antibodies directed against the intracellular rat GR, of the PM pretreated with the membrane protein solubilizing detergent CHAPSO, we found that specific steroid binding to the PM site is not due to contamination with GR. Colchicine, daunorubicine, quinine, reserpine, verapamil and vinblastine, representatives of lipophilic xenobiotics which are known to be transported out of cells by the glycoprotein P170, did not compete with B for uptake into PM-vesicles, indicating that the GC importer is not a member of the ABC/mdr superfamily. The GC importer seems to be an additional link in the chain of steroid signal transduction and may be functionally involved in the action of natural GC-agonists and GC-antagonists.