In order to elucidate the roles of 17β-HSDs in fish gonadal steroidogenesis, three types of 17β-HSDs (17β-HSD1, 17β-HSD8 and putative 17β-HSD12) were cloned and characterized from the Nile tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus. The cloned cDNAs of 17β-HSD type 1, 8 and 12 were 1504, 1006 and 1930 bp long, with open reading frames encoding proteins of 289, 256 and 314 aminoacids, respectively. Tissue distribution pattern analyzed by RT-PCR and Northern blot showed that 17β-HSD1 was dominantly expressed in the ovary, while the putative 17β-HSD12, one of the two duplicates found in fish, is a male specific enzyme and expressed exclusively in testis (detected by RT-PCR only). On the other hand, 17β-HSD8 was expressed in the brain, gill, heart, liver, intestine, gonad, kidney and muscle of both male and female. Enzymatic assays of the three types of 17β-HSDs were performed using recombinant proteins expressed in E. coli or HEK 293 cells. Tilapia 17β-HSD1 expressed in E. coli had the preference for NADP(H) as cofactor and could catalyze the inter-conversion between estrone and estradiol efficiently as well as the inter-conversion between androstenedione and testosterone, but less efficiently. Tilapia 17β-HSD8 recombinant protein expressed in HEK 293 cells could catalyze the conversion of testosterone to androstenedione, as well as the inter-conversion between estrone and estradiol. However, the putative 17β-HSD12 expressed in E. coli or in HEK 293 cells showed no conversion to any of the four substrates tested in this study. Based on enzyme characterization and tissue distribution, it is plausible to attribute crucial roles to 17β-HSDs in the gonadal steroidogenesis of teleosts.