The microsomal enzyme steroid 5 alpha-reductase is responsible for the conversion of testosterone into the more potent androgen dihydrotestosterone. In man, this steroid acts on a variety of androgen-responsive target tissues to mediate such diverse endocrine processes as male sexual differentiation in the fetus and prostatic growth in men. Here we describe the isolation, structure, and expression of a cDNA encoding the human steroid 5 alpha-reductase. A rat cDNA was used as a hybridization probe to screen a human prostate cDNA library. A 2.1-kilobase cDNA was identified and DNA sequence analysis indicated that the human steroid 5 alpha-reductase was a hydrophobic protein of 259 amino acids with a predicted molecular weight of 29,462. A comparison of the human and rat protein sequences revealed a 60% identity. Transfection of expression vectors containing the human and rat cDNAs into simian COS cells resulted in the synthesis of high levels of steroid 5 alpha-reductase enzyme activity. Both enzymes expressed in COS cells showed similar substrate specificities for naturally occurring steroid hormones. However, synthetic 4-azasteroids demonstrated marked differences in their abilities to inhibit the human and rat steroid 5 alpha-reductases.