Previous experiments have clearly indicated that the successful completion of ovine gestation is dependent upon fetal adrenocortical maturation and the associated preterm rise in fetal plasma cortisol. The purposes of this study were to: 1) examine pituitary POMC messenger RNA (mRNA) levels during normal fetal development; and 2) examine the effects of bilateral lesion of the fetal paraventricular nucleus (PVN) on levels and spatial distribution of pituitary POMC mRNA. Pituitary glands were collected from intact fetal sheep of four gestational ages [100-107 days gestational age (dga), n = 8; 117-121 dga, n = 9; 126-130 dga, n = 9; 144-147 dga, n = 8]. Lesions of the PVN (PVN Lx; n = 4) or sham lesions (Sham; n = 5) were performed at 118-122 dga. Pituitary glands from PVN Lx and Sham fetuses were collected at 139-142 dga (term ~147 dga). POMC mRNA levels were determined by in situ hybridization. POMC transcript levels were determined by both regional analysis (20x magnification) and analysis of individual corticotropes (400x magnification). There was no difference among gestational age groups in superior anterior pituitary (AP) POMC mRNA levels determined by regional or cellular analysis. POMC mRNA levels were significantly greater in the inferior AP at 144-147 dga, compared with other gestational ages, using regional analysis (P = 0.003) or analysis of individual corticotropes (P < 0.01). POMC mRNA levels in the neurointermediate lobe in 126- to 130-dga fetuses were significantly greater than those in younger fetuses (P = 0.005) but not those in 144- to 147-dga fetuses. There was no difference in POMC mRNA levels in the superior AP between PVN Lx and Sham, using regional analysis or analysis of individual corticotropes. In the inferior AP, there was a significant decrease in POMC mRNA levels in PVN Lx, compared with Sham, using both regional analysis (P < 0.01) and cellular analysis (P < 0.01). There was no difference in POMC mRNA levels in the neurointermediate lobe as the result of bilateral PVN Lx. Our findings support that basal AP POMC mRNA levels are heterogenously distributed in the ovine fetal AP, with POMC mRNA levels in the inferior AP being significantly greater than in superior AP, by 144-147 dga. We further found that the higher POMC mRNA levels in the inferior AP reflect significantly higher corticotrope POMC transcripts and not simply a greater density of corticotropes in this AP region. The increase in POMC mRNA levels at 144-147 dga in the inferior AP seems unrelated to the onset of adrenocortical maturation (at ~125-130 dga). Finally, we report that increase in corticotrope POMC transcripts during late gestation in the inferior AP requires an intact PVN.
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