We show that recombinant rat glucocorticoid receptor (vvGR) expressed using vaccinia virus is indistinguishable from authentic GR with respect to DNA and hormone binding. In the absence of hormone, vvGR is mainly found in the cytoplasm in a complex with heat shock protein 90. Upon incubation with ligand, vvGR is released from this complex and translocated to the nucleus. Thus, the ligand binding domain displays the known biochemical properties. However, in vitro, transcription from a synthetic promoter and from the mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV) promoter is enhanced by recombinant GR in a ligand independent manner. Both transactivation domains contribute to the transcriptional activity, additively on a synthetic promoter and cooperatively on the MMTV promoter. We thus provide the first evidence that in vitro the hormone binding domain has a transcriptional activity even in the absence of ligand.