We sought to establish the mechanism for the raised serum estrogen levels that occur in male rats with portal hypertension and resultant portal bypass. Using the portal vein ligated (PVL) rat model, we evaluated plasma steroid hormone concentrations, metabolic clearance rate (MCR) of estradiol, and hepatic metabolism of androstenedione to estrogens and other products. In contrast to serum testosterone levels that were reduced, serum androstenedione levels were normal in the PVL rat. Estradiol MCR was measured by a constant intravenous infusion technique and was found to be similar in PVL and control animals. Androstenedione MCR was determined during constant intravenous infusion of [3H]androstenedione, and the resultant radiolabeled steroids present in plasma were separated by thin layer chromatography. The MCR of androstenedione was not diminished in PVL rats compared with controls. However, there was a sevenfold increase in the plasma estradiol derived from [3H]androstenedione in rats with portal bypass. Examination of radiolabel excreted in bile during infusion of [3H]androstenedione showed that 25-46% of this steroid was converted to estradiol in PVL rats compared with less than 3% in control male rats (P less than 0.001). Moreover, there was a selective reduction in the excretion of 16 alpha-hydroxyandrostenedione, a finding which suggested that the metabolism of androstenedione via this pathway was decreased. Androstenedione 16 alpha-hydroxylation is known to be catalyzed by a male-specific cytochrome P-450 isoform, P-450UT-A. We conclude that raised plasma estradiol levels after portal bypass in male rats are due to increased production rates, resulting in turn from enhanced aromatization of androstenedione to estradiol. On the basis of the observed specific changes in androstenedione hydroxylation pathways, it is proposed that alterations in levels of sex-specific forms of cytochrome P-450 occur in male rats with portal bypass and could account for the enhanced formation of estradiol.