We have used affinity labeling, site-directed mutagenesis and regional chemical mutagenesis in order to determine regions of the estrogen receptor (ER) important in hormone binding, ligand discrimination between estrogens and antiestrogens, and transcriptional activation. Affinity labelling studies with the antiestrogen, tamoxifen aziridine and the estrogen, ketononestrol aziridine have identified cysteine 530 in the ER hormone binding domain as the primary site of labeling. In the absence of a cysteine at 530 (i.e. Cys530A1a mutant), C381 becomes the site of estrogen-compatible tamoxifen aziridine labeling. Hence these two residues, although far apart in the primary linear sequence of the ER protein, must be close in the three-dimensional structure of the protein, in the ER ligand binding pocket, so that the ligand can reach either site. Site-directed and region-specific chemical mutagenesis have identified a region around C530 important in discrimination between estrogens and antiestrogens, and other mutants have allowed identification of residues important in hormone-dependent transcriptional activation. Some transcriptionally inactive ER mutants also function as potent dominant negative ERs, suppressing the activity of wild-type ERs at low concentrations. These studies are beginning to provide a more detailed picture of the ER hormone binding domain and amino acids important in ligand binding and discrimination between different categories of agonist and antagonist ligands. Such information will be important in the design of maximally effective antiestrogens. In addition, since there is now substantial evidence for a mixture of wild-type and variant ERs in breast cancers, our studies should provide insight about the bioactivities of these variant receptors and their roles in modulating the activity of wild type ER, and should lead to a better understanding of the possible role of variant receptors in altered response or resistance to antiestrogen and endocrine therapy in breast cancer.