Many organochlorine pesticides are suspected of impairing natural hormonal function in organisms by mimicking endogenous estrogen. The aim of this study was to assess the estrogenic activity of the organochlorine pesticides o,p'-DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, heptachlor, mirex and DDT in rainbow trout hepatocyte cultures using vitellogenin (Vtg) as the biomarker. A wide range of pesticide concentrations (0.0001-100 microM) was evaluated. Among the pesticides tested, o,p'-DDT was the most potent inducer of Vtg. The lower potency of technical grade DDT relative to o,p'-DDT could be explained by the fact that this pesticide is a mixture of two different pesticides (18% o,p'-DDT and 77% p,p'-DDT). This suggests that o,p'-DDT is a stronger inducer of Vtg than p,p'-DDT. A simple hypothesis could be that pesticides mixed together competed for the same receptor to favor the formation of a complex with reduced activity towards EREs. If these compounds are classified according to the level of Vtg secreted, we observed the following decreasing order: 17beta-estradiol (E(2))>o,p'-DDT>dieldrin>aldrin>DDT. Non-toxic levels of these compounds competed with E(2) for binding to the estrogen receptor. Heptachlor and mirex did not induce Vtg. Since the latter compounds failed to stimulate Vtg production, the possibility that they could interfere with the estrogenic response by inhibiting E(2) action was tested. In the presence of heptachlor, Vtg production triggered by E(2) significantly decreased. The EC50 value for inhibition of ER binding by heptachlor was cytotoxic for hepatocytes in culture, and this could in part explain the lack of Vtg response observed with this compound at the concentrations tested. Our results indicate that organochlorine pesticides can act as positive or negative modulators of estrogenic function in rainbow trout.