The fetal environment is now recognized as a key determinant of the adult phenotype, being linked to development of diseases, including hypertension, as well as the timing of puberty. Such links may be related, in part, to the level of fetal exposure to maternal glucocorticoids in utero, which is normally regulated by placental expression of the enzyme 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11 beta-HSD). The present study examined whether manipulation of fetal glucocorticoid exposure, either directly or indirectly via 11 beta-HSD inhibition, influences the subsequent timing of puberty. Administration of dexamethasone acetate at low (LDEX, 0.25 mu g/ml drinking water) or high doses (HDEX, 1 mu g/ml) or carbenoxolone (CBX, 2 x 10 mg/day, sc; an inhibitor of 11 beta-HSD) to pregnant rats from day 13 to term (day 23) reduced offspring birthweight (LDEX: 9%; HDEX: 27%; CBX: 8%) and resulted in a subsequent delay in the onset of puberty in females (control: 41.4 +/- 0.5; LDEX: 44.8 +/- 0.7; HDEX: 48.5 +/- 0.4; CBX: 43.6 +/- 0.5 days). Importantly, the effects of CBX were not observed in the absence of maternal adrenals, indicating that they were mediated by increased fetal exposure to endogenous maternal glucocorticoids. In contrast, maternal treatment with metyrapone (MET; an inhibitor of glucocorticoid synthesis; 500 mu g/ml drinking water from day 13) increased birthweight by 5% and advanced puberty onset in male offspring (control: 48.8 +/- 1.0; MET: 45.7 +/- 0.8 days). Changes in the timing of puberty onset were not attributable to changes in either bodyweight at puberty or peripubertal plasma leptin concentrations. Peripubertal plasma LH was also unaffected in animals with delayed puberty but was elevated in male offspring of MET-treated mothers. Collectively, these results demonstrate that fetal glucocorticoid exposure is an important determinant of the timing of puberty onset in postnatal life, and that this effect is operable within the normal physiological range of glucocorticoid concentrations.