Mammary gland development is regulated by complex interactions among mammogenic hormones and locally derived paracrine growth factors. In epithelial tissues, keratinocyte growth factor (KGF or FGF-7) originates in the stroma while its receptor (KGFR or FGFR2-IIIb) is present only in the epithelium. Previous work showed that estrogen but not progesterone could stimulate the synthesis of KGF in mammary stroma in vivo. The effects of 17 beta-estradiol and progesterone on KGFR expression in vivo were examined in these studies. Peripubertal and mature virgin mice received subcutaneous injections of hormone in sesame oil after which KGFR mRNA levels were assayed by ribonuclease protection analysis of mammary gland RNA. Estradiol treatment caused a dose- and time-dependent decrease in KGFR mRNA level in mice from both age groups while stimulating ductal growth after 7 days of treatment. Inhibition of KGFR expression was near maximal at an estradiol dose of 2 microg after 1 day of treatment. Progesterone injection increased KGFR mRNA levels but this effect correlated with the stimulation of ductal growth. However, when progesterone was co-administered with estradiol, KGFR mRNA levels were maintained in the absence of any effect on ductal growth. Thus, estradiol inhibited KGFR mRNA only when elevated unopposed by progesterone. These data show that KGFR expression is determined by the ratio of estradiol and progesterone and suggests a mechanism through which these hormones can co-operate to optimize their growth-promoting effects. Consequences of hormone imbalance are also implicated.