Melatonin, secreted only during the night by the pineal gland, transduces the photoperiodic message to the organism. One important target for the hormone is the pars tuberalis (PT) of the adenohypophysis which displays a very high number of melatonin binding sites in mammals and is implicated in the seasonal regulation of prolactin secretion. To gain insight into the mechanism by which the melatonin signal is decoded in the PT, we studied the effect of photoperiod on the PT cells expressing the MT1 melatonin receptor in a highly photoperiodic species, the European hamster. Recently, we showed that, in the rat, the MT1 receptor mRNA is expressed in PT-specific cells characterized by their expression of beta-thyroid stimulating hormone (beta-TSH) along with the alpha-glycoprotein subunit (alpha-GSU). As the cellular composition of the PT shows variability among species, we first identified the cell type expressing the MT1 receptor in the European hamster by combining immunocytochemistry and nonradioactive in situ hybridization for the MT1 receptor mRNA. Our results show that, in the European hamster, as in the rat, the MT1 receptor is only expressed by the PT-specific-cells, beta-TSH and alpha-GSU positive. In a second step, we analysed the effects of photoperiod on the MT1 mRNA, and on beta-TSH and alpha-GSU both at the mRNA and protein levels. Our data show that, compared to long photoperiod, short photoperiod induces a dramatic decrease of MT1, beta-TSH and alpha-GSU expression. Protein levels of beta-TSH and alpha-GSU were also dramatically reduced in short photoperiod. Together, our data suggest that melatonin exerts its seasonal effects in the PT by signalling to PT specific-cells through the MT1 receptor subtype.
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