Ontogenic changes in pituitary pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA and prolactin (PRL) mRNA were examined during gestation and early neonatal life using in situ hybridization histochemistry. Pituitaries were harvested from fetuses at days 60–80, 100–120, 135–140 and 142–143 of gestation and at term, and from lambs at days 1–7 and 30–60 of age and adults.
POMC mRNA, present by day 60, rose during mid- and late gestation. Concurrently there was a change in corticotroph distribution, resulting in a relatively greater quantity of POMC mRNA at the base of the pars distalis. At term, there was a significant (P<0·05) further elevation of POMC mRNA. POMC mRNA levels remained high in the newborn lamb but decreased in the adult. Cells in the pars intermedia expressed large amounts of POMC mRNA early in fetal life and this pattern persisted throughout gestation and into the neonatal period. Changes in the expression of the POMC gene correlated closely with the presence of immunoreactive (ir)ACTH in the pituitary; in fetuses the proportion of irACTH-positive cells rose to 10% of pars distalis cells by day 100 and did not change significantly thereafter. The lactotrophs contained PRL mRNA by day 60, and the quantity increased towards parturition (P<0·05). PRL mRNA subsequently decreased in the neonate, but rose as the lamb matured.
These results indicate that in the fetal pituitary: (1) the POMC gene is highly expressed during gestation in both the pars distalis and the pars intermedia, (2) changes in the amounts of POMC mRNA and PRL mRNA in the pars distalis correlate with the distribution of irACTH and irPRL respectively, and (3) POMC mRNA is distributed primarily in the inferior aspect of the pars distalis, and in this region its quantity is highest immediately prior to parturition.