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Genes Dev. 1990 May;4(5):695-711.

Pituitary cell phenotypes involve cell-specific Pit-1 mRNA translation and synergistic interactions with other classes of transcription factors.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, La Jolla 92093-0613.


Development of the anterior pituitary gland involves proliferation and differentiation of ectodermal cells in Rathke's pouch to generate five distinct cell types that are defined by the trophic hormones they produce. A detailed ontogenetic analysis of specific gene expression has revealed novel aspects of organogenesis in this model system. The expression of transcripts encoding the alpha-subunit common to three pituitary glycoprotein hormones in the single layer of somatic ectoderm on embryonic day 11 established that primordial pituitary cell commitment occurs prior to formation of a definitive Rathke's pouch. Activation of Pit-1 gene expression occurs as an organ-specific event, with Pit-1 transcripts initially detected in anterior pituitary cells on embryonic day 15. Levels of Pit-1 protein closely parallel those of Pit-1 transcripts without a significant lag. Unexpectedly, Pit-1 transcripts remain highly expressed in all five cell types of the mature pituitary gland, but the Pit-1 protein is detected in only three cell types--lactotrophs, somatotrophs, and thyrotrophs and not in gonadotrophs or corticotrophs. The presence of Pit-1 protein in thyrotrophs suggests that combinatorial actions of specific activating and restricting factors act to confine prolactin and growth hormone gene expression to lactotrophs and somatotrophs, respectively. A linkage between the initial appearance of Pit-1 protein and the surprising coactivation of prolactin and growth hormone gene expression is consistent with the model that Pit-1 is responsible for the initial transcriptional activation of both genes. The estrogen receptor, which has been reported to be activated in a stereotypic fashion subsequent to the appearance of Pit-1, appears to be capable, in part, of mediating the progressive increase in prolactin gene expression characteristic of the mature lactotroph phenotype. This is a consequence of synergistic transcriptional effects with Pit-1, on the basis of binding of the estrogen receptor to a response element in the prolactin gene distal enhancer. These data imply that both transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulation of Pit-1 gene expression and combinatorial actions with other classes of transcription factors activated in distinct temporal patterns, are required for the mature physiological patterns of gene expression that define distinct cell types within the anterior pituitary gland.

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