Breast cancer resistance protein (BCRP/ABCG2) is currently the only ABC transporter that exports mono- and polyglutamates of folates and methotrexate (MTX). Here we explored the relationship between cellular folate status and BCRP expression. Toward this end, MCF-7 breast cancer cells, with low BCRP and moderate multidrug resistance protein 1 (MRP1/ABCC1) levels, and their mitoxantrone (MR)-resistant MCF-7/MR subline, with BCRP overexpression and low MRP1 levels, were gradually deprived of folic acid from 2.3 microm to 3 nm resulting in the sublines MCF-7/LF and MCF-7/MR-LF. These cell lines expressed only residual BCRP mRNA and protein levels and retained a poor MRP2 (ABCC2) through MRP5 (ABCC5) expression. Furthermore, MCF-7/MR-LF cells also displayed 5-fold decreased MRP1 levels relative to MCF-7/MR cells. In contrast, BCRP overexpression was largely retained in MCF-7/MR cells grown in MR-free medium containing 2.3 microm folic acid. Loss of BCRP expression in MCF-7/LF and MCF-7/MR-LF cells resulted in the following: (a) a prominent decrease in the efflux of Hoechst 33342, a BCRP substrate; (b) an approximately 2-fold increase in MR accumulation as revealed by flow cytometry; this was accompanied by a 2.5- and approximately 84-fold increased MR sensitivity in these cell lines, respectively. Consistently, Ko143, a specific BCRP inhibitor, rendered MCF-7 and MCF-7/MR cells 2.1- and approximately 16.4-fold more sensitive to MR, respectively. Loss of BCRP expression also resulted in the following: (c) an identical MTX sensitivity in these cell lines thereby losing the approximately 28-fold MTX resistance of the MCF-7/MR cells; (d) an approximately 2-fold increase in the 4- and 24-h accumulation of [(3)H]folic acid. Furthermore, MCF-7/MR-LF cells displayed a significant increase in folylpoly-gamma-glutamate synthetase activity. Hence, consistent with the mono- and polyglutamate folate exporter function of BCRP, down-regulation of BCRP and increased folylpoly-gamma-glutamate synthetase activity appear to be crucial components of cellular adaptation to folate deficiency conditions. This is the first evidence for the possible role of BCRP in the maintenance of cellular folate homeostasis.