CRH regulates POMC gene expression and subsequent ACTH biosynthesis and release. In sheep, the preterm rise in fetal plasma ACTH commences at approximately 125 days gestation (dGA; 147 dGA = term), preceding the initiation of adrenocortical steroidogenesis. We hypothesized that an increase in CRH expression in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN) and POMC expression in the anterior pituitary in the late gestation sheep fetus may precede adrenal cortex maturation. Fetal sheep were obtained at 105-107 (n = 4), 128-130 (n = 5), and 138-140 (n = 4) dGA. Hypothalami were cryosectioned and subjected to in situ hybridization for ovine CRH mRNA. In all dGA groups, expression of CRH mRNA was observed throughout the rostrocaudal extent of the fetal PVN. The midrostral region of the fetal PVN where the dorsal and ventral divisions of the rostral PVN merge to form a single structure was selected for quantification. The number of copies of CRH probe hybridized per μm3 were determined to estimate the quantity of hybridized CRH mRNA; the mean estimated CRH mRNA copy number per μm3 midrostral PVN were 0.064 ± 0.012 (105-107 dGA), 0.237 ± 0.048 (128-130 dGA), and 0.108 ± 0.034 (138-140 dGA; mean ± SEM copies per μm3 PVN). CRH mRNA signal significantly increased between 105-107 and 128-130 dGA (P ≤ 0.05); 138-140 dGA levels of mRNA were not different from either 105-107 or 128-140 dGA levels. Regional variation in CRH mRNA levels were observed within the midrostral PVN between groups; at 138-140 dGA, a population of lateral midrostral PVN neurons maintain CRH mRNA levels greater than 105-107 dGA (P < 0.05), similar to those at 128-130 dGA. Fetal anterior pituitary RNA was subjected to Northern analysis for POMC mRNA. POMC mRNA levels in fetal anterior pituitaries were 14.1 ± 2.2 (105-107 dGA), 28.9 ± 10.9 (128-130 dGA), and 43.2 ± 6 (138-140 dGA; mean ± SEM arbitrary units). A significant increase (P < 0.05) was observed at 138-140 dGA compared to levels at 105-107 dGA. We conclude CRH mRNA levels in the fetal PVN increase coincident with increased POMC gene expression and the late gestation rise in fetal plasma ACTH. We speculate that a neuroendocrine stimulus at the fetal PVN may precipitate increased levels of CRH mRNA, initiating the maturation of the fetal hypothalamic-hypophyseal-adrenal axis, thus inducing the events of labor and delivery in sheep.
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