Epidemiological studies and in vitro analysis demonstrate correlations between selenium status and human pre-eclampsia (PET). Selenium is an essential component in the anti-oxidant proteins glutathione peroxidase and thioredoxin reductase, which are produced in lower amounts in pre-eclamptic placenta. This study examined the effect of modulating dietary selenium content in pregnant rats. Rats were fed diets containing no selenium, 239 microg/kg selenium or 1000 microg/kg selenium, four weeks prior to and following conception. Significant pregnancy-specific increases in systolic blood pressure (116.4 +/- 5.2 mmHg vs 108 +/- 6.8 mmHg vs 111.4 +/- 4.7 mmHg) and proteinuria (9.68 +/- 2.12 microg/ml vs 5.93 +/- 1.59 microg/ml vs 4.43 +/- 0.96 microg/ml) were demonstrated in animals fed a selenium free-diet when compared with normal or high selenium diets. Placental weight and pup number were not affected by selenium deprivation, however a significant decrease in the pup weight was evident. Selenium deprivation caused dose-dependent decreases in liver glutathione peroxidase (28.55 +/- 3.82 mmoles/min/mg vs 34.68 +/- 8.64 mmoles/min/mg) and thioredoxin reductase (2.37 +/- 1.25 U/mg vs 6.68 +/- 1.82 U/mg) activity, whereas superoxide dismutase activity remained constant. Placental activity of these enzymes also decreased leading to oxidative stress as measured by increased lipid peroxides (17.92 +/- 1.78 micromoles/mg vs 8.30 +/- 5.52 micromoles/mg) and protein carbonyls in tissue extracts from selenium-free animals. These results suggest that selenium deficiency in pregnant rats leads to symptoms similar to those seen in human PET and may provide an experimental model for studying this complex disease.