We have previously reported that cytochrome P450scc activity in the human placenta is limited by the supply of electrons to the P450scc [Tuckey, R. C., Woods, S. T. & Tajbakhsh, M. (1997) Eur. J. Biochem. 244, 835-839]. The aim of the present study was to determine whether it is adrenodoxin reductase, adrenodoxin or both which limits cytochrome P450scc activity and hence progesterone synthesis in the placenta. We found that the concentrations of adrenodoxin reductase and adrenodoxin in placental mitochondria were both considerably lower than the concentrations of these proteins in the bovine adrenal cortex. When P450scc activity assays were carried out at high mitochondrial protein concentrations, we found that the addition of exogenous adrenodoxin reductase to sonicated mitochondria rescued pregnenolone synthesis to a level above that for intact mitochondria, showing that adrenodoxin is near-saturating in vivo. in contrast, pregnenolone synthesis by sonicated mitochondria was almost zero even after the addition of human adrenodoxin. This shows that the concentration of endogenous adrenodoxin reductase was insufficient to support appreciable rates of pregnenolone synthesis, even when concentrated mitochondrial samples were used. Comparative studies with human and bovine adrenodoxin reductase have revealed that a twofold higher concentration of human adrenodoxin reductase is required for maximal P450scc activity in the presence of saturating human adrenodoxin. Thus, not only is the adrenodoxin concentration low in placental mitochondria, but the amount required for maximal P450scc activity is higher than that for the bovine reductase. Overall, the data indicate that the adrenodoxin reductase concentration limits the activity of P450scc in placental mitochondria and hence determines the rate of progesterone synthesis.