11Beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11beta-HSD 1) is a microsomal enzyme that catalyzes the reversible interconversion of receptor-active 11-hydroxy glucocorticoids (cortisol) to their receptor-inactive 11-oxo metabolites (cortisone). However, the physiological role of 11beta-HSD 1 as prereceptor control device in regulating access of glucocorticoid hormones to the glucocorticoid receptor remains obscure in light of its low substrate affinities, which is in contrast to low glucocorticoid plasma levels and low Kd values of the receptors to cortisol. To solve this enigma, we performed detailed kinetic analyses with a homogeneously purified 11beta-HSD 1 from human liver. The membrane-bound enzyme was successfully obtained in an active state by a purification procedure that took advantage of a gentle solubilization method as well as providing a favorable detergent surrounding during the various chromatographic steps. The identity of purified 11beta-HSD 1 was proven by determination of enzymatic activity, N-terminal amino acid sequencing, and immunoblot analysis. By gel-permeation chromatography we could demonstrate that 11beta-HSD 1 is active as a dimeric enzyme. The cDNA for the enzyme was cloned from a human liver cDNA library and shown to be homologous to that previously characterized in human testis. Interestingly, 11beta-HSD 1 exhibits Michaelis-Menten kinetics with cortisol and corticosterone (11beta-dehydrogenation activity) but cooperative kinetics with cortisone and dehydrocorticosterone (11-oxoreducing activity). Accordingly, this enzyme dynamically adapts to low (nanomolar) as well as to high (micromolar) substrate concentrations, thereby providing the fine-tuning required as a consequence of great variations in circadian plasma glucocorticoid levels.