The inactivation by 21-chlorinated steroids of rabbit liver cytochromes P-450 involved in the hydroxylation of progesterone has been investigated in intact microsomes encompassing two phenotypes of 21-hydroxylase activity, two phenotypes of 16 alpha-hydroxylase activity, and three phenotypes of 6 beta-hydroxylase activity. In liver microsomes from outbred New Zealand White male rabbits exhibiting a high content of cytochrome P-450 1, 21,21-dichloropregnenolone caused a time- and NADPH-dependent loss of 21-hydroxylase activity. This loss of activity exhibited a number of characteristics of mechanism-based inactivation, including irreversibility, saturation with increasing inhibitor concentrations, and protection by substrate, and was also documented with purified P-450 1 in a reconstituted system. 21,21-Dichloropregnenolone caused no time-dependent loss of 6 beta-hydroxylase activity in microsomes from the New Zealand White rabbits or from control or rifampicin-treated rabbits of the inbred B/J strain. In contrast, in the microsomes from the B/J rabbits, some inactivation of the 16 alpha-hydroxylase was observed (k = 0.04 min-1), regardless of the rifampicin treatment. The other two compounds tested, 21-chloropregnenolone and 21,21-dichloroprogesterone, were less effective than the dichloropregnenolone as inactivators of cytochrome P-450 1. On the other hand, 21,21-dichloroprogesterone, but not 21,21-dichloropregneolone, caused a rapid time-dependent loss of 21-hydroxylase activity in rabbit adrenal microsomes. The results indicate that the introduction of a dichloromethyl group into a substrate bearing a methyl group normally hydroxylated by only one or a few forms of cytochrome P-450 may be a rational means of designing selective inhibitors of the enzyme.