The effect of low sodium and high potassium intake on rat adrenal zona glomerulosa (ZG) and zona fasciculata-reticularis (ZFR) were studied during a 7-day period, by analyzing mRNA and protein levels of various enzymes involved in aldosterone synthesis. In ZG significant increases in cytochrome P-450scc, P-450c21, P-450(11 beta), adrenodoxin mRNA and protein levels were observed after 2 days with either diet, and at day 7 these levels were further increased. The largest mRNA induction was observed at day 7 in sodium-depleted rats for P-450(11 beta), with a 4-fold increase, followed by 2.7- and 2.0-fold increases for P-450scc and P-450c21, respectively. A pattern similar to those of P-450scc and P-450(11 beta) was observed for adrenodoxin with a 2.1-fold increase after 7 days of Na+ restriction. In K(+)-loaded rats mRNA levels for P-450scc, P-450(11 beta), P-450c21, and adrenodoxin were also increased by 2.2-, 2.1-, 1.5-, and 1.9-fold respectively. Protein levels of these enzymes were also measured in ZG and showed increases similar to those of their respective mRNAs for both treatments. On the other hand, mRNA levels of P-450scc, P-450(11 beta), P-450c21, and adrenodoxin in ZFR were found significantly lower than in ZG, although they were slightly increased for both treated groups of rats as compared with controls. In addition, ZFR protein levels of corresponding enzymes did not fluctuate significantly under both ionic regimens. In conclusion, both low sodium and high potassium intakes act primarily on ZG. Their action on plasma aldosterone seems to be mediated by increasing both mRNA and protein and levels of steroidogenic enzymes, especially at the early step (cytochrome P-450scc) and even more at the late steps (cytochrome P-450(11 beta]. In addition, a close relationship appears to exist between the two mitochondrial P-450s and their electron donor adrenodoxin, since their mRNA and protein levels were similarly enhanced for both diets used.