Since osteoblasts are direct targets for estradiol in vitro, and Phenol Red has been reported to bear estrogen-like bioactivity, we investigated whether the pH indicator also mimicked the biological effects of estradiol on bone cells in vitro. We then asked whether estrogenic effects of Phenol Red could be observed in vivo, firstly on the uterus, and if so, whether Phenol Red could also effect bone in vivo. The proliferation of calvarial osteoblasts was stimulated by commercially available preparations of Phenol Red in a dose-dependent manner at 1.5-50 microM. This effect was not abolished in the presence of an antibody against insulin-like growth factor I. In addition, Phenol Red increased alpha 1 (I) collagen mRNA levels of osteoblasts in vitro. 17 beta-estradiol (1.5 micrograms) or Phenol Red (10 mg) administration to immature female rats (45-50 g) resulted in a weight gain of the uterus, and alpha 1(I) procollagen transcripts were more abundant in RNA prepared from uterus of drug-treated rats than observed in the control rats. Similarly, higher procollagen mRNA steady-state levels were observed in RNA prepared from parietal bones of Phenol Red or estradiol-treated rats compared to RNA from control rats. The data extend previous findings in vitro by demonstrating that Phenol Red also exerts estrogen-like effects in vivo. Moreover, we show that Phenol Red stimulates bone cells and, therefore, is likely to interfere at least in experiments designed to investigate estrogen effects on osteoblasts.