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Treatment of confluent cultures of JAR human placental choriocarcinoma cells with cholera toxin or forskolin for 16 h markedly stimulated (2.4-fold) serotonin transport activity in these cells. Cycloheximide, an inhibitor of protein synthesis or actinomycin D, an inhibitor of mRNA synthesis effectively blocked this stimulation. Northern blot analysis revealed that treatment with cholera toxin resulted in severalfold increase in the concentrations of the three mRNA species (6.8, 4.9 and 3.0 kilobases in size) which hybridized to the human placental serotonin transporter cDNA. Under similar conditions, the concentrations of the mRNA species which hybridized to the human placental taurine transporter cDNA or to the human beta-actin cDNA were not affected. Analysis of paroxetine-sensitive binding of the cocaine analog 2 beta-carbomethoxy-3 beta-(4- [125I]iodophenyl)tropane to the membranes prepared from control and cholera toxin-treated cells indicated that the maximal binding capacity was increased 2.5-fold by cholera toxin, with no significant change in the binding affinity. Thus, stimulation of serotonin transporter activity in the placental choriocarcinoma cells following cholera toxin treatment is likely a result of an increase in cell surface density of the serotonin transporter protein as a consequence of increased steady state serotonin transporter mRNA levels.