Placental transferrin receptor (TfR) protein expression is increased in diabetic pregnancies that are complicated by low fetal iron stores, suggesting regulation of placental iron transport by fetoplacental iron status. In cell culture, iron homeostasis is regulated by coordinate stabilization of TfR mRNA and translation inactivation of ferritin mRNA by iron regulatory proteins (IRP-1 and -2) which bind to iron-responsive elements (IREs) on the respective mRNAs. Concentrations of IRP-1, IRP-2 and TfR mRNA were measured in 10 placentae obtained from diabetic and non-diabetic human pregnancies with a wide range of fetoplacental iron status. IRP-1 activity was present in human placenta and correlated closely with TfR mRNA concentration (r = 0.82; P = 0.007). IRP-2 activity and protein were not detected. In a second experiment, placentae were collected from 12 diabetic pregnancies, six with low fetal cord serum ferritin and placental non-heme iron concentrations, and six with normal iron status. IRP-1 activity and TfR B(max) for diferric transferrin were greater in the iron-deficient group (P < 0.05). IRP-1 activity correlated inversely with cord serum ferritin (r = 0.75; P < 0.01) and placental non-heme iron (r = 0.61; P = 0.05) concentration. Placental IRP-1 activity is directly related to TfR mRNA concentration and is more highly expressed in iron-deficient placentae. The study provides direct in vivo evidence for IRP regulation of TfR expression in the human placenta.