Although the human and the nonhuman primate fetal adrenal glands undergo a highly unique pattern of cortical zone-specific intrauterine growth and development, studies of the regulatory components of the cell cycle responsible for this growth have not been conducted. Therefore, the present study determined expression of the cell cycle regulators, cyclin D1 and cyclin E, and their cyclin-dependent kinases, Cdk2, Cdk4, and Cdk6, and Ki67 a marker of cell proliferation within the baboon fetal adrenal cortex during advancing stages of gestation. Fetal adrenal glands were obtained on days 60 (early), 100 (mid), and 160-170 (late) of gestation (term = 184 days). Mean (+/- s.e.) cyclin D1 mRNA levels, determined by RT-PCR and expressed relative to 18S rRNA, were similar at early (0.85 +/- 0.09) and mid (1.04 +/- 0.08) gestation, then decreased (P < 0.001, ANOVA) approximately 50% by late gestation (0.57 +/- 0.04). Cyclin E mRNA levels were also similar at early (2.03 +/- 0.07) and mid (1.63 +/- 0.31) gestation, and decreased by 70% (P < 0.001) in late gestation (0.53 +/- 0.09). Coinciding with the decrease in cyclin D1 and cyclin E, the percentage of Ki67 positive cells in the definitive zone decreased twofold (P < 0.01) between mid (28.2 +/- 3.6) and late (13.8 +/- 1.7) gestation. The cyclin D1 and cyclin E proteins, determined by immunocytochemistry, were expressed at high levels in the definitive zone of baboon fetal adrenal gland, where they decreased between mid- and late gestation. In contrast, immunocytochemical expression of the functionally important steroidogenic enzyme Delta(5)-3beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3beta-HSD) became abundant in the definitive and transitional zones with advancing pregnancy. However, fetal adrenal Cdk2, Cdk4, and Cdk6 mRNA levels and protein immunoexpression were similar in the baboon fetal adrenal at early-, mid-, and late gestation. In summary, expression of cyclin D1, cyclin E, and Ki67 decreased, while 3beta-HSD expression increased, in the fetal adrenal cortex, particularly in the definitive zone, between mid- and late-baboon gestation. We propose that a developmental decline in cellular proliferation permits functional differentiation of fetal adrenal cortical cells, leading to increased production of steroid hormones important for placental estrogen synthesis and maturation of organ systems within the developing fetus.