The structural determinants of aldosterone binding specificity in the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) have not been determined. The MR has greatest sequence identity with the better characterized glucocorticoid receptor (GR), which is reflected in their overlapping ligand binding specificities. There must be subtle sequence differences that can account for the MR-specific binding of aldosterone and the shared binding of cortisol. To characterize ligand binding specificity, chimeras were made between the human MR and GR ligand-binding domains (LBDs). Three points were chosen as break points to generate a total of 16 different constructs. These chimeric LBDs were placed in a human GR expression vector containing the GR DNA-binding and N-terminal domains and assayed by co-transfection into CV-1 cells with the mouse mammary tumor virus-luciferase reporter plasmid. Binding of [3H]aldosterone and [3H]dexamethasone was also measured. All of the constructs that are potently activated by aldosterone contain amino acids 804-874 of the MR. The results of the ligand binding experiments using [3H]aldosterone were consistent with the transactivation assay. Cortisol activation of the chimeras was surprisingly complex. Constructs that are activated by cortisol contain either amino acids 804-874 and 932-984 of the MR or amino acids 598-668 and 726-777 of the GR. However, all of the chimeras retained the ability to bind the synthetic glucocorticoid [3H]dexamethasone, and cortisol was able to displace [3H]dexamethasone binding, suggesting that the differential effects of cortisol on transcriptional activation are caused by an effect that occurs downstream of ligand binding. These results identify a subregion of the MR LBD that confers specificity of aldosterone binding, which contrasts with cortisol binding where differential effects between chimeras appear to be mediated by interactions distal to ligand binding.