Although the androgen receptor (AR) has been detected by ligand-binding assays, there is little known about the expression and regulation of the AR gene in human breast-cancer cells. AR mRNA, measured by Northern analysis in 18 cell lines, was found to be expressed predominantly in oestrogen- and progesterone-receptor-positive (ER+, PR+) lines as a single species of approximately 10.5 kb but was also comparatively abundant in I ER- and PR-negative cell line, MDA-MB-453. Dexamethasone (Dex), Organon 2058 (Org 2058), dihydrotestosterone (DHT), and all-trans-retinoic acid (RA) down-regulated AR mRNA levels in T-47D (ER+, PR+) cells 6 hr after treatment, whereas oestradiol (E2) had no effect. In MDA-MB-453 (ER-, PR-) cells, regulation of AR mRNA by RA differed from the other cell lines: RA increased the level of AR mRNA. DHT-binding assays indicated a corresponding increase in AR protein. Transfection of the androgen-responsive mouse mammary tumour virus long-terminal repeat (MMTV LTR) linked to a chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) reporter gene was used to examine the effect of altered AR levels on androgen action. The increased level of AR following RA pre-treatment in MDA-MB-453 cells resulted in enhanced induction of CAT activity by DHT and, conversely, a decrease in the level of AR following RA pretreatment in T-47D cells resulted in reduced induction of CAT activity by DHT. These data demonstrate that AR is expressed predominantly in ER+ and PR+ cell lines and its expression is regulated by ligands also known to regulate ER or PR, including progestins and retinoids. Androgen responsiveness measured by a transfected reporter gene was altered according to the extent of up- or down-regulation of AR expression, demonstrating that responsiveness is dependent on receptor concentration.