Estrogen hormones induce transient transcriptional activation of c-fos during the early phases of mitogenic stimulation of target cells. This is mediated by a functional estrogen response element (ERE) that in the human c-fos gene is localized 1kb up-stream of the transcription start site. This is the first known example of transient transcriptional activation induced by a steroid hormone acting via its nuclear receptor. Starting with the hypothesis that the product of c-fos (Fos) interferes with estrogen receptor (ER) activity on this gene promoter, generating in this way a feedback inhibition mechanism responsible for the rapid transcriptional down-regulation detected in vivo, we tested the effects of Fos overexpression on ER-mediated activation of the c-fos promoter in transfected HeLa cells. Transient transfection of an ER expression vector is followed by hormone-dependent trans-activation of reporter genes comprising the c-fos ERE linked to its own promoter. Coexpression of Fos in the cell induces a significant reduction in the activity of ER on the reporter genes. Fos antagonism is effective on both transcription activation functions of the receptor molecule and is independent of the nature of the target promoter. Furthermore, under the same experimental conditions, the estrogen-receptor complex antagonizes activation of an AP-1-responsive test gene by Fos. ER mutants deprived of the DNA-binding domain are efficient inhibitors of Fos activity, indicating that reciprocal antagonism is likely to be mediated by the formation of inactive complexes between the two factors. These results reveal the existence of a functional interference between the ER and Fos for regulation of c-fos protooncogene transcription. It is the first case in which the product of an estrogen-induced growth-related gene is shown to exert a negative feedback control on ER regulation of its own promoter.