Although arginine-vasopressin (AVP) is reported to produce greater ACTH biosynthetic and secretory responses than does corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in sheep anterior pituitary cells, neither factor appears to increase pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) mRNA levels, as does CRH in the cells of some other species. Since only a fraction of cells that express POMC mRNA may be able to respond to AVP, the aim of this study was to further delineate the regulation of POMC mRNA in ovine anterior pituitary corticotrophs, as a whole and infunctional subpopulations of corticotrophs. We measured the effects of AVP, CRH of activation of protein kinase C by phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) in cultured cells. We compared responses in intact populations with those of cultures from which CRH-target cells were pharmacologically eliminated. Dissociated adult ovine anterior pituitary cells were cultured overnight, treated with either vehicle (intact) or a CRH-target cells (CRH-target- depleted), washed, returned to culture and subsequently challenged with vehicle, AVP (100 nM), CRH (10 nM) or PMA (1 μM) for 5h. The media were assayed for ACTH by RIA and the cells for POMC mRNA by Northern blot analysis. In intact populations, AVP and CRH increased ACTH secretion from 6.5 ± 1.2 to 216 ± 22 and 81 ± 14 ng/well respectively, but only AVP caused an increase in steady-state. POMC mRNA levels (+48 ± 10%). Direct activation of protein kinase C with PMA mimicked the effect of AVP on ACTH secretion (318 ± 16 ng/well), but did not alter POMC mRNA levels. In CRH- target-depleted populations, control ACTH secretion (11 ± 3 ng/well) and POMC mRNA (+69 ± 7%) were elevated, compared with intact populations. AVP (55 ± 8 ng/well) and PMA (120 ± 17 ng/well), but not CRH, increased ACTH secretion; POMC mRNA was not significantly elevated by any of the treatments. Taken together, these data provide further support for the notion of dissociation between secretion of ACTH and expression of POMC mRNA, and demonstrate that AVP increases steady-state POMC mRNA levels in ovine anterior pituitary cells. The data are also consistent with the concept that complex interactions, possibly including those between cells, influence ACTH secretion and steady-state POMC mRNA levels.