OBJECTIVE: Progesterone binds to the human mineralocorticoid receptor (hMR) with nearly the same affinity as do aldosterone and cortisol, but confers only low agonistic activity. It is still unclear how aldosterone can act as a mineralocorticoid in situations with high progesterone concentrations, e.g. pregnancy. One mechanism could be conversion of progesterone to inactive compounds in hMR target tissues. DESIGN: We analyzed the agonist and antagonist activities of 16 progesterone metabolites by their binding characteristics for hMR as well as functional studies assessing transactivation. METHODS: We studied binding affinity using hMR expressed in a T7-coupled rabbit reticulocyte lysate system. We used co-transfection of an hMR expression vector together with a luciferase reporter gene in CV-1 cells to investigate agonistic and antagonistic properties. RESULTS: Progesterone and 11beta-OH-progesterone (11beta-OH-P) showed a slightly higher binding affinity than cortisol, deoxycorticosterone and aldosterone. 20alpha-dihydro(DH)-P, 5alpha-DH-P and 17alpha-OH-P had a 3- to 10-fold lower binding potency. All other progesterone metabolites showed a weak affinity for hMR. 20alpha-DH-P exhibited the strongest agonistic potency among the metabolites tested, reaching 11.5% of aldosterone transactivation. The agonistic activity of 11beta-OH-P, 11alpha-OH-P and 17alpha-OH-P was 9, 5.1 and 4.1% respectively. At a concentration of 100 nmol/l, progesterone, 17alpha-OH-P and 20alpha-DH-P inhibit nearly 75, 40 and 35% of the transactivation by aldosterone respectively. All other progesterone metabolites tested demonstrate weaker affinity, and agonistic and antagonistic potency. CONCLUSIONS: The binding affinity for hMR and the agonistic and antagonistic activity diminish with increasing reduction of the progesterone molecule at C20, C17 and at ring A. We assume that progesterone metabolism to these compounds is a possible protective mechanism for hMR. 17alpha-OH-P is a strong hMR antagonist and could exacerbate mineralocorticoid deficiency in patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.