Recent reports have demonstrated that the secretion of ACTH from sheep anterior pituitary primary cultures is markedly stimulated by arginine vasopressin (AVP) but not by CRF, and that AVP-stimulated ACTH secretion is potentiated by CRF. It has also been reported that AVP increases total ACTH content (secreted plus intracellular ACTH), suggesting that AVP stimulates POMC biosynthesis in the ovine anterior pituitary. These observations differ from the rat, in which CRF is the most potent of the ACTH-releasing factors and the only ACTH secretagogue which stimulates POMC gene expression and biosynthesis. The second messenger pathways which mediate CRF- and AVP-stimulated ACTH release (protein kinase A and protein kinase C, respectively) are the same in sheep and rat corticotrophs. The present studies were undertaken to determine if ovine POMC gene expression, unlike the rat POMC gene, is stimulated by AVP via the protein kinase C pathway. A 295 base pair portion of the ovine POMC gene was isolated using polymerase chain reaction and sequenced. Ovine POMC messenger RNA (mRNA) levels were quantitated using this partial complementary DNA clone in a solution hybridization/nuclease protection assay with cytoplasmic RNA from sheep anterior pituitary primary cultures which had been treated with various combinations of ACTH secretagogues or with glucocorticoids for 18 h. Treatment with AVP, alone or with CRF, greatly increased total and secreted ACTH levels; however, the amount of POMC mRNA in these cells was not significantly increased. Treatments which stimulated secretion to a lesser extent and did not alter total ACTH levels (CRF alone, cAMP alone, or with phorbol ester) were associated with a decrease in POMC mRNA levels relative to untreated cells. Glucocorticoid treatment decreased both total ACTH and POMC mRNA levels. Taken together, the data demonstrate a lack of secretagogue-induced stimulation of POMC mRNA levels concomitant with increased total ACTH levels, an unexpected result given the close association between secretion of POMC-derived peptides and POMC gene expression in other mammalian corticotroph systems.