We have investigated the possible role of the fetal pituitary and ACTH in the control of the synthesis and post-translational processing of the enkephalin precursor, proenkephalin A (proEnk A), in the fetal sheep adrenal gland in late gestation. Fetal hypophysectomy (n = 8) or sham operations (n = 4) were performed between 109 and 118 days of gestation. At 138-139 days, either ACTH(1-24) (10.5 μg/0.24 ml saline per h, n = 4) was infused intravenously for 72 h into hypophysectomized fetal sheep or 0.9% (w/v) NaCl alone (0.24 ml/h, n = 4) was infused for 72 h into hypophysectomized fetal sheep and sham-operated animals. At the end of the infusion the pregnant ewe was killed and left or right adrenal glands (n = 12) were collected from the fetal sheep that were intact and given saline (Intact + sal; n = 4), hypophysectomized and given saline (Hx + sal; n = 4) and hypophysectomized and given ACTH (Hx + ACTH; n = 4). Each adrenal was homogenized in acid (acetic acid (1 mol/l)/HCl (20 mmol/l)/2-mercaptoethanol (0.2%)). After centrifugation, the supernatant was loaded onto a Sephadex G-75 column (2.0 x 50 cm), eluted at 80 ml/24 h and fractions were collected (5 ml, n = 42). An aliquot of each fraction (2 ml) was dried down prior to enzymatic digestion (trypsin/carboxypeptidase B) and oxidation with H2O2, and assay for methionine-O-enkephalin (immunoreactive Met-O-Enk). The total adrenal content of immunoreactive Met-O-Enk was significantly greater in the Hx + ACTH group (326.2 ± 66.7(S.E.M.)ng/adrenal) when compared with either the Intact + sal group (152.7 ± 44.0 ng/adrenal) or the Hx + sal group (112.1 ± 20.8 ng/adrenal). In the adrenal glands from all fetuses immunoreactive Met-O-Enk was found in four molecular weight ranges: < 12 kDa, 12-7 kDa, 7-3 kDa and < 3 kDa. There was no significant difference between the Hx + sal and Hx + ACTH groups in the proportion of immunoreactive Met-O-Enk present in each of the molecular weight ranges in the adrenals and therefore the data from these groups were combined for further statistical analysis. The proportion of immunoreactive Met-O-Enk in the > 12 kDa range was significantly less in the Intact + sal group (5.5 ± 2.3%) when compared with the hypophysectomized sheep with or without ACTH replacement (18.7 ± 4.5%). These data demonstrate that fetal hypophysectomy alters the molecular weight profile of Enk-containing peptides in the adrenal of the fetal sheep and whilst ACTH replacement in the hypophysectomized fetus does not alter the post-translational processing of the Enk-containing peptides, it stimulates an increase in the total amount of immunoreactive Met-O-Enk in the fetal adrenal in late gestation.