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K. Yang, G. L. Hammond, and J. R. G. Challis


Fetal sheep tissues possess glucocorticoid receptors (GR), and these change in number during the last two-thirds of gestation. There is, however, no information about developmental changes in tissue GR mRNA levels which might account for alterations in fetal GR content. We have therefore cloned and sequenced a 942 bp GR cDNA from a sheep liver cDNA library, and used it to study the relative abundance of GR mRNA in fetal and neonatal sheep tissues. Analysis of the cDNA revealed a partial sequence of the ovine GR which displayed over 80% identity with residues 143–453 in human GR and 163–472 in rat GR. Furthermore, the first zinc finger motif in these receptors was perfectly conserved among species. The relative abundance of GR mRNA was studied in hypothalami, anterior pituitary glands and adrenals in fetuses at days 60–70, 100–110, 125–130 and at term (approximately 145 days), and in newborn lambs. Total RNA extracts (20 μg) were analysed by Northern blot analysis. A single 5.6kb transcript was detected in all three fetal tissues, and its relative abundance did not change significantly throughout gestation. However, in newborn lambs, levels of GR mRNA increased significantly in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland but decreased to undetectable levels in the adrenal. These tissue-specific changes in the relative abundance of GR mRNA did not correlate with alterations in GR content in fetal tissues, which suggests that the latter may reflect alterations in GR mRNA translation, subsequent modifications and/or GR turnover. In addition, the pattern of developmental changes in GR mRNA content of the adrenal differs from that of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in neonatal lambs, and indicates that tissue-specific factors may influence GR gene expression in neonatal sheep.

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K Yang, S G Matthews, and J R G Challis


To examine the role of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 1 (11β-HSD1) in the control of glucocorticoid actions in the ovine pituitary during development, we have sought developmental changes in the distribution and the level of 11β-HSD1 mRNA by in situ hybridization. In the pars distalis, 11β-HSD1 mRNA was present by day 60; its amount did not change significantly until term (days 145–147) when it increased dramatically. The level of 11β-HSD1 mRNA increased further during the postnatal period. In contrast, 11β-HSD1 mRNA in the pars intermedia was not detectable until day 135; it increased in amount at days 140–143, but did not change significantly thereafter through to adulthood.

We have also measured levels of both dehydrogenase and reductase activities of 11β-HSD1 in the pars distalis of fetal sheep at day 140 and term, and of postnatal sheep at 1–2 months of age, to determine whether changes in 11β-HSD1 mRNA are reflected in the levels of enzyme activities. There were progressive increases in both dehydrogenase and reductase activities from day 140 to 1–2 months postnatally, although dehydrogenase activity was consistently higher than reductase activity.

Finally, we have determined the effect of short-term intrafetal cortisol infusion (5 μg/min for 12 h) on levels of pituitary 11β-HSD1 mRNA by in situ hybridization. There was no effect of cortisol infusion on 11β-HSD1 mRNA expression.

The present results demonstrate that 11β-HSD mRNA and enzyme activity in the pars distalis of fetal sheep increase dramatically at term when plasma levels of both ACTH and cortisol are elevated. This suggests that 11β-HSD1 may contribute to the proposed resetting of cortisol negative feedback within the fetal pituitary at that time.

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S G Matthews, X Han, F Lu, and J R G Challis


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.

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F Lü, K Yang, V K M Han, and J R G Challis


Activation of the fetal pituitary-adrenal axis is crucial for fetal organ maturation and the onset of parturition in sheep. Many factors including corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin secreted from the hypothalamus, and growth factors produced within the pituitary may be involved in the regulation of maturation of the fetal pituitary gland. IGFs have mitogenic and differentiation-promoting capacities in a variety of organs and are synthesized as paracrine factors within developing tissues. However, there is little information concerning the synthesis, distribution, regulation and function of IGFs in the fetal pituitary gland at different times during pregnancy. Therefore, we have localized IGF-I and IGF-II mRNAs and peptides, and determined the effect of cortisol on the level of IGF-II mRNAs in the pituitary glands of developing sheep fetuses. We examined the possible effects of IGFs on corticotroph function in cultures of adenohypophysial cells from term fetuses.

Seven species of IGF-II transcripts of 1·2–6·0 kb were identified by Northern blot analysis in the pituitary gland of fetuses between day 60 of gestation and term (day 145). The levels of IGF-II mRNAs did not change significantly during pregnancy, although there was a trend for the presence of higher levels of IGF-II mRNAs at day 60 of gestation. IGF-I mRNA was not detectable. By in situ hybridization, IGF-II mRNA was localized to non-endocrine cells and to cells lining the blood vessels of the pars distalis, to some presumed endocrine cells in the pars distalis and pars intermedia, and to clusters of cells in the pars nervosa. In contrast, IGF-I and IGF-II peptides were detected in the presumed endocrine cells in the pars distalis and pars intermedia but not in the pars nervosa. Incubation of adenohypophysial cells from term fetuses with IGF-I, but not IGF-II, for 48 h increased specific 125I-Tyr-ovine CRH binding. However, neither IGF-I nor IGF-II had any significant effects on the basal or CRH-stimulated immunoreactive (ir)-ACTH output, the level of POMC mRNA or the number of ir-ACTH positive cells. Infusion of cortisol to fetuses starting at day 96 of gestation for 100 h or at days 120–125 of gestation for 84 h did not affect the level of IGF-II mRNAs in the pars distalis but decreased the levels of POMC mRNA.

These results are consistent with IGFs having the potential to influence fetal pituitary function, although probably on cell types other than the corticotrophs. The likely sources of IGFs may be predominantly local (IGF-II) or from extrapituitary sources (IGF-I).