Estrogens regulate many functions of pituitary lactotrophs, including PRL gene expression, release, storage, and cellular proliferation. The mechanism by which estrogens exert such a variety of functions is poorly understood. In the uterus, estrogens rapidly and transiently induce the expression of the immediate early genes c-fos and c-jun in specific cell types. The Fos/Jun proteins form the activating protein-1 (AP1) transcription factor that mediates ligand-activated cell proliferation, differentiation, and secretion. Here we used Fischer 344 (F344/rats that develop hyperprolactinemia and prolactinomas in response to estrogens. The objectives were to: 1) determine whether estrogen induces c-fos expression in the pituitary gland and identify the responsive cells; 2) compare the dynamics of c-fos induction in the pituitary and uterus; and 3) examine the temporal relationship between c-fos expression and PRL release. Ovariectomized F344 rats were injected with 1 μg estradiol and killed at different times thereafter. Pituitaries were subjected to in situ hybridization for c-fos and immunostaining for selected pituitary cells. Estradiol stimulated c-fos expression in lactotrophs and folliculo-stellate cells within the anterior lobe without affecting either the intermediate or neural lobes. In a second experiment, c-fos messenger RNA levels were measured by solution hybridization in anterior pituitaries and uteri from estradiol-treated rats. Trunk blood was analyzed for PRL by RIA. The estrogen-induced c-fos rise in the uterus was rapid, robust, and transient, whereas that in the anterior pituitary was delayed, lower, and sustained. The profile of serum PRL levels resembles that of c-fos induction in the anterior pituitary. We conclude that: 1) both lactotrophs and folliculo-stellate cells increase c-fos expression in response to estrogens; 2) induction of c-fos expression may mediate some estrogenic effects on PRL synthesis and release and lactotroph proliferation in F344 rats; and 3) the atypical dynamics of c-fos induction in the pituitary could be due to indirect effects of estrogens on PRL- regulating factors within the hypothalamo-pituitary complex as well as to pituitary-specific estrogen receptor isoforms, coactivators, or repressors.
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