The phytoestrogens, coumestrol and equol, are weakly estrogenic. Here, we have examined their ability to induce responses in the neonatal rat uterus. Potent estrogens such as diethylstilbestrol (DES) and 17 beta-estradiol which initially double uterine weight on postnatal Day (PND) 5 when given on PND 1-5 subsequently reduce both uterine growth and gland development at later ages. In this study, Sprague-Dawley pups were treated neonatally (PND 1-5) with various doses of coumestrol and equol, and sacrificed at different ages to determine alterations in biochemical and morphological endpoints. Other rats were injected with the same compounds during the critical period of gland genesis (PND 10-14) to examine their effects on gland development. At the 100 micrograms coumestrol dose, on PND 1-5, premature gland development and increased uterine weight were observed. However, at later ages, uterine weight was significantly lowered and there was a severe suppression in the estrogen receptor (ER) levels. Equol lowered uterine weight at the later ages but did not affect ER levels. When given on PND 10-14, both coumestrol and equol caused a dose-dependent inhibition of gland genesis though not as severe as either DES or tamoxifen. Coumestrol was about 10(3) more potent than equol as an estrogen and behaved much like DES with respect to its effects on uterine weight, glands, and ER levels. At the doses used in this study, equol failed to demonstrate either estrogenic or antiestrogenic activity.