The sensitivity of soluble, 17 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (17 beta-HSD) of human placenta to inactivation by fatty acids was examined. Exposure to the unsaturated fatty acids oleic, arachidonic, linoleic and linolenic acid resulted in the loss of activity. Methyl and ethyl esters of oleic acid, the saturated fatty acid, stearic acid and prostaglandins E2 and F2 alpha were without effect. Inactivation by oleic acid required the fatty acid at levels above its critical micelle concentration, 50 microM, as estimated by light-scattering. Steroid substrates and inhibitors did not protect against inactivation. NAD+, NADH, NADP+ and NADPH did protect. The concentrations of NADP+, 50 microM, and NAD, 1.5 mM, necessary for complete protection were significantly greater than their respective Michaelis constants, 0.16 microM and 15.2 microM. The data suggest that soluble 17 beta-HSD can bind to fatty acid micelles and that the binding site(s) on the enzyme are at or near pyridine nucleotide binding sites.