The growth-inhibitory actions of the pineal hormone, melatonin, on human breast tumor cells and the possible association between this inhibition and melatonin's down-regulation of the estrogen receptor (ER) expression were examined in the ER-positive, estrogen-responsive MCF-7 human breast tumor cell line. As previously reported, melatonin dramatically inhibits the growth of these breast tumor cells and down-regulates ER levels in these cells, suggesting that the modulation of ER may be an important mechanism by which melatonin inhibits breast cancer cell growth. In the present studies, Northern blot analysis was used to examine the expression of estrogen-regulated transcripts known to be involved in estrogen's mitogenic actions. Melatonin, at a physiologic concentration (10(-9) M), rapidly, significantly, and, in some cases, transiently elevated the steady-state mRNA levels of growth stimulatory products such as TGF alpha, c-myc, and pS2, which are normally up-regulated in response to estrogen. Conversely,melatonin decreased the expression of other factors normally up-regulated by estrogen, such as progesterone receptor and c-fos. Significant stimulation of the expression of the growth-inhibitory factor TGF beta was seen with melatonin treatment, potentially supporting the concept that melatonin's growth-inhibitory activity is mediated through the breast tumor cells' estrogen-response pathway. The early regulation of many of these products by melatonin suggests that mechanisms more rapid than the down-regulation of ER are important in melatonin's modulation of their expression. However, the long-term modulation of these transcripts (12-48 hr) may be heavily influenced by melatonin's down-regulation of ER expression. These results clearly define the need for additional in depth studies to dissect the cellular events leading to melatonin-induced growth inhibition in breast tumor cells.