Estrogens are important regulators of physiological functions. Although environmental contaminants (xenoestrogens) which interfere with estrogen signaling are of increasing concern, there is only limited information about their ability to interact with estrogen-binding proteins (SHBG) or receptors (ER). Recombinant ERalpha and beta were obtained after transient transfection of COS-7 cells with channel catfish ER cDNA. Plasma from adult female channel catfish was the source of SHBG. Tritiated estradiol (3H-E2) was used in standard radioligand-binding assays to characterize the binding properties of channel catfish SHBG (ccfSHBG) and to estimate the inhibition constants for various estrogenic compounds. Binding of 3H-E2 to ccfSHBG was saturable and of high affinity with a Kd (+/-SE) of 1.9+/-0.14 nM and a Bmax of 14.3+/-2.4 pmol/mg protein ( n = 3 assays). Additionally, ccfSHBG displayed binding specificity for androgens and estrogens. Endosulfan, 4-nonylphenol, and 4-octylphenol displaced 3H-E2 binding to ccfSHBG albeit only at very high concentrations, whereas dieldrin and atrazine showed little displacement activity even at the highest concentrations used. The synthetic estrogen ethynylestradiol had higher affinity than E2 for ccfSHBG. This finding differs from results with human and rainbow trout SHBG. The alkylphenolic compounds (4-octylphenol and 4-nonylphenol) displayed some ability to displace 3H-E2 binding from ERalpha and beta at high concentrations, but dieldrin and atrazine had little binding activity for both ER subtypes and endosulfan for ERbeta. The xenobiotics tested generally showed equivalent or greater affinity for ERalpha than ERbeta, whereas natural estrogens had much greater affinity for ERbeta than ERalpha. These observations suggest that results of studies using fish tissue ER extracts must be interpreted with caution, since both ER subtypes may be present, and that the binding of xenoestrogens to SHBG must be taken into account for proper assessment of endocrine disruption caused by environmental contaminants.