The human breast cancer cell line MCF-7 has been adapted to long-term growth at 0.5 and 0.05% fetal bovine serum. Free cytoplasmic and filled nuclear estrogen receptors were found in cells grown at 5, 0.5, and 0.05% fetal bovine serum. Cells grown in medium with 0.05% dextran-charcoal-treated serum contained cytoplasmic receptors but no filled nuclear receptors, indicating that this medium did not contain biologically active concentrations of estrogen. Addition of estradiol to the medium translocated the cytoplasmic receptor to the nucleus and stimulated progesterone receptor synthesis but did not increase the growth rate. The antiestrogen tamoxifen (TAM) inhibited cell growth at all serum concentrations investigated, at least in part by a reduction of the growth fraction. The sensitivity to TAM was highest at low serum concentrations. The effect of TAM could be reversed by estradiol at TAM concentrations of 10(-6) M or lower. It is concluded that estradiol does not have a direct growth-stimulatory effect on our MCF-7 cells in monolayer cultures although the cells contain functional estrogen receptors and growth of the cells in athymic mice requires estrogens. TAM has an estrogen-competitive, inhibitory effect on the growth of MCF-7 cells at concentrations lower than 10(-6) M. At higher concentrations, the growth inhibition is unspecific and noncompetitive by estradiol.