The mechanism by which retinoids, thyroid hormone (T3) and estrogens modulate the growth of breast cancer cells is unclear. Since nuclear type II nuclear receptors, including retinoic acid receptor (RAR), retinoid X receptor (RXR) and thyroid hormone receptor (TR), bind direct repeats (DR) of the estrogen response elements (ERE) half-site (5'-AGGTCA-3'), we examined the ability of estrogen receptor (ER) versus type II nuclear receptors, i.e. RARalpha, beta and gamma, RXRbeta, TRalpha and TRbeta, to bind various EREs in vitro . ER bound a consensus ERE, containing a perfectly palindromic 17 bp inverted repeat (IR), as a homodimer. In contrast, ER did not bind to a single ERE half-site. Likewise, ER did not bind two tandem (38 bp apart) half-sites, but low ER binding was detected to three tandem copies of the same half-site. RARalpha,beta or gamma bound both ERE and half-site constructs as a homodimer. RXRbeta did not bind full or half-site EREs, nor did RXRbeta enhance RARalpha binding to a full ERE. However, RARalpha and RXRbeta bound a half-site ERE cooperatively forming a dimeric complex. The RARalpha-RXRbeta heterodimer bound the Xenopus vitellogenin B1 estrogen responsive unit, with two non-consensus EREs, with higher affinity than one or two copies of the full or half-site ERE. Both TRalpha and TRbeta bound the full and the half-site ERE as monomers and homodimers and cooperatively as heterodimers with RXRbeta. We suggest that the cellular concentrations of nuclear receptors and their ligands, and the nature of the ERE or half-site sequence and those of its flanking sequences determine the occupation of EREs in estrogen-regulated genes in vivo .