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Previous studies have demonstrated an imbalance in placental levels of the human choriogonadotropin (hCG) alpha and beta subunits. Free alpha subunit was present in first trimester placentae, and the imbalance was accentuated as gestation approached parturition. Two sets of experiments were performed to assess the control on production levels of each subunit. Synthesis of the alpha and beta subunits was assessed by labeling the nascent chains of polysomes derived from first trimester placenta. The products of these reactions were immunoprecipitated with subunit-specific antisera and the labeled subunits were quantitated; the ratio of alpha to beta subunit synthesized was 1.7. To examine whether this imbalanced synthesis reflected differences in the amount of subunit mRNAs, or differing mRNA translational efficiencies, the ratio of the steady state levels of these mRNAs was also determined. Total first trimester placental RNA was hydrolyzed with alkali, 5'-end-labeled with 32P, and hybridized in DNA excess to cloned alpha and beta cDNAs. These experiments demonstrated the presence of twice as much hCG-alpha mRNA as hCG-beta mRNA. In term placenta, the amounts of excess alpha subunit are greater than at first trimester; the ratio of alpha to beta mRNAs in term RNA was about 12:1. Thus, the subunit mRNA levels are independently regulated and their imbalance accounts for differences in the quantities of alpha and beta subunits seen in placental tissue.