Adaptive changes in levels of urea cycle enzymes are largely coordinate in both direction and magnitude. In order to determine the extent to which these adaptive responses reflect coordinate regulatory events at the pretranslational level, measurements of hybridizable mRNA levels for all five urea cycle enzymes were carried out for rats subjected to various dietary regimens and hormone treatments. Changes in relative abundance of the mRNAs in rats with varying dietary protein intakes are comparable to reported changes in enzyme activities, indicating that the major response to diet occurs at the pretranslational level for all five enzymes and that this response is largely coordinate. In contrast to the dietary changes, variable responses of mRNA levels were observed following intraperitoneal injections of dibutyryl cAMP and dexamethasone. mRNAs for only three urea cycle enzymes increased in response to dexamethasone. Levels of all five mRNAs increased severalfold in response to dibutyryl cAMP at both 1 and 5 h after injection, except for ornithine transcarbamylase mRNA which showed a response at 1 h but no response at 5 h. Combined effects of dexamethasone and dibutyryl cAMP were additive for only two urea cycle enzyme mRNAs, suggesting independent regulatory pathways for these two hormones. Transcription run-on assays revealed that transcription of at least two of the urea cycle enzyme genes--carbamylphosphate synthetase I and argininosuccinate synthetase--is stimulated approximately four- to fivefold by dibutyryl cAMP within 30 min. The varied hormonal responses indicate that regulatory mechanisms for modulating enzyme concentration are not identical for each of the enzymes in the pathway.