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The molecular defect in a reported case of isolated 17,20-lyase deficiency in a 46XY individual has been elucidated. The patient was found to be a compound heterozygote, carrying two different mutant alleles in the CYP17 gene. One allele contains a point mutation of arginine (CGC) to cysteine (TGC) at amino acid 496 in exon 8. The second allele contains a stop codon (TAG) in place of glutamine (CAG) at position 461 in exon 8 which is located 19 amino acids to the carboxy-terminal side of the P-450(17) alpha heme binding cysteine. COS-1 cells transfected with cDNAs containing one or the other of these mutations showed dramatically reduced 17 alpha-hydroxylase and 17,20-lyase activities relative to cells transfected with the wild type P-450(17) alpha cDNA. While the in vitro data in COS 1 cells can explain the patient's physical phenotype, with female external genitalia, it was somewhat discordant with the clinical expression of isolated 17,20-lyase deficiency with relative preservation of 17 alpha-hydroxylase activity in vivo. In addition to the expression studies of these two examples of mutants in the C-terminal region of cytochrome P-450(17) alpha, a third mutant cDNA construct containing a 4-base duplication at codon 480 previously found in patients with combined 17 alpha-hydroxylase/17,20-lyase deficiency was also expressed in COS-1 cells. This expressed protein was completely inactive with respect to both activities, supporting the biochemical findings in serum and in vitro biochemical data obtained using a testis from the patient. The results from these patients clearly indicate the importance of the C-terminal region of human P-450(17) alpha in its enzymatic activities.