In vitro studies with mineralocorticoid receptors (MR) have shown that they are non-specific and do not distinguish between glucocorticoids (cortisol in man, corticosterone in rodents) and aldosterone. These findings contrast with in vivo aldosterone selectivity. Our studies on the congenital deficiency of the enzyme 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-OHSD; which converts cortisol to cortisone or corticosterone to 11-dehydrocorticosterone) and acquired deficiency secondary to liquorice or carbenoxolone indicate that this enzyme plays a crucial role in protecting the MR from glucocorticoid exposure. The localisation of 11β-OHSD in both the proximal and distal nephron suggests that it has both an autocrine and a paracrine role. The presence of this protective mechanism in the toad bladder suggests that it is at least 300 million years old.