Formation of lipoidal derivatives of estradiol-17 beta (E2) esterified to long-chained fatty acids has been reported to occur in estrogen target tissues. Employing human breast cancer cells in culture, we have detected the rapid synthesis of such compounds upon exposure of the cells to concentrations of [3H]E2 as low as 1 nM. When exposed to 10 nM [3H]E2 in the culture medium, synthesis of E2-lipoidal derivative (E2-L) reached 270 fmol/mg DNA in 2 h in the estrogen receptor positive MCF-7 human mammary cancer cell line. Higher rates (approximately 900 fmol/mg DNA in 2 h) were reached in 2 estrogen receptor negative human mammary cancer cell lines; MDA-MB-231 and MDA-MB-330. E2-L was the major form of estrogen in the latter cells at this time interval (E2-L/E2 approximately 3.0). Far higher concentrations of E2 were found in MCF-7 cells compared to 231 and 330 cells, and, in contrast to the latter, this was mostly specifically bound. Upon subsequent withdrawal of E2 from the medium, intracellular concentrations of E2-L decreased very rapidly in the first 5 h period, then declined more slowly to approximately 50 fmol/mg DNA at 24 h. Intracellular concentrations of E2 were maintained over this time period. E2-L was not present in the medium. Thus, accumulation of E2-L in cells upon continuous exposure to E2 represents the net result of esterification and deesterification reactions. These hydrophobic E2-derivatives may then be involved in the "capture" of E2 for transport through membranes and subsequent regeneration of E2 to maintain occupancy of the nuclear receptor.