While studying the bile acid synthetic pathway of hamsters, we discovered an NADP+-dependent liver microsomal 7alpha-hydroxycholesterol dehydrogenase (7alpha-HCD) activity that was not observed in rat liver microsomal fractions. The hamster liver microsomal 7alpha-HCD was purified to homogeneity using 2', 5'-ADP and cholic acid-agarose affinity chromatography. 7alpha-HCD displayed a molecular weight of approximately 34,000 on SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis; it is an intrinsic membrane protein of the hamster liver endoplasmic reticulum and exists as a multimeric aggregate in pure form. Partial N-terminal amino acid sequence analysis showed that 7alpha-HCD had high sequence similarity to human 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11beta-HSD; 24/30 amino acid identity). The Km values for corticosterone and 7alpha-hydroxycholesterol were 1.2 and 1.9 microM, respectively, for purified 7alpha-HCD; both reactions displayed identical Vmax values (approximately 170 nmol/min/mg of protein). The IC50 of carbenoxolone, a competitive inhibitor of 11beta-HSD, was 75 nM for 7alpha-hydroxycholesterol dehydrogenation and 210 nM for corticosterone dehydrogenation. The tissue-specific expression in hamster was as follows: adrenal >/= liver > kidney > testis >> brain > lung. Microsomal 7alpha-HCD is uniquely expressed in hamster liver and to some extent in human liver but not in rat liver. Western blot analysis with two antibodies elicited against an N-terminal peptide of the human 11beta-HSD and purified hamster liver 7alpha-HCD, respectively, suggested the presence of multiple forms of 7alpha-HCD in hamster liver, most likely due to the existence of a family of 11beta-HSD proteins. Since 7-oxocholesterol is a potent inhibitor of cholesterol 7alpha-hydroxylase, alternative mechanisms for regulation of bile acid synthesis may exist in human and hamster liver due to production of this metabolite and its potential as an oxysterol.