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Maintenance of optimal steroidogenic capacity in the adrenal cortex is the result of a cAMP-dependent response to the peptide hormone corticotropin (ACTH). The molecular mechanism of this action of ACTH has been examined by using five recombinant DNA clones specific for enzymes of the steroidogenic pathway (P-450scc, P-45011 beta, P-450C21, P-45017 alpha, and adrenodoxin). The presence of nuclear precursors in steady-state RNA samples derived from cultured bovine adrenocortical cells and moderate increases in the number of RNA chain initiations, as determined by in vitro nuclear run-off assays, indicate that ACTH controls the expression of the gene(s) for each of these proteins at the transcriptional level. The ACTH-mediated increase in accumulation of transcripts specific for steroid hydroxylases in nuclear RNA can be specifically blocked by inhibiting protein synthesis in bovine adrenocortical cell cultures. The steady-state concentrations of nuclear RNA for control genes show no decrease upon cycloheximide treatment. These studies suggest that a primary action of ACTH in the adrenal cortex is to activate (via cAMP) the synthesis of rapidly turning over protein factors that in turn mediate increased initiation of transcription of steroid hydroxylase genes. We propose that these protein factors impart specificity of induction to genes encoding components of this pathway in steroidogenic tissues.