Chronic administration of thyroid hormone (T3) increases apolipoprotein (apo) A-I gene expression in rat liver. That transcriptional activity of the apoA-I gene is reduced to 50% of control, whereas abundance levels of nuclear and total cellular apoA-I mRNA are increased 3-fold, implies more effective apoA-I mRNA maturation. To study hormonal effects on apoA-I RNA processing, we quantified mRNA precursors in control and T3-treated rats (50 micrograms/100 g body weight for 7 days). Northern blotting, amplification of reverse-transcribed RNA, and ribonuclease protection assays showed that the splicing pathway is branched, in that either intron 1 or intron 2 is removed first from the primary transcript, whereas intron 3 is removed last. In T3-treated rats, abundance levels of the primary transcript, the intron 1-containing precursor devoid of intron 2, the intron 2-containing precursor devoid of intron 1, the intron 3-containing precursor lacking both introns 1 and 2, and nuclear mRNA were 65, 183, 78, 195, and 268% of controls. Compared with control rats, the half-life of the intron 1-containing precursor, measured after injection of actinomycin D, was increased 2-fold in T3-treated rats. In contrast, half-lives of the primary transcript and the intron 2-containing precursor were similar in control and T3-treated rats. Ribonuclease protection assays revealed an RNA species extending from the transcription start site close to the 3' end of intron 1. The abundance of this RNA fragment, probably representing a degradation product, was 2.5-fold higher in control than in T3-treated animals (p < 0.001). Sequences of apoA-I mRNA precursors were identical in control and T3-treated rats which excluded hormonal effects on splice-site selection or post-transcriptional editing of apoA-I transcripts. Compartmental modeling of apoA-I mRNA processing suggested that chronic thyroid hormone administration enhances apoA-I mRNA maturation more than 7-fold by protecting the intron 1-containing precursor devoid of intron 2 from degradation and by facilitating the splicing of intron 1 from this precursor.