Pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) receptors were characterized and their function investigated in mouse pituitary neurointermediate lobe explants. We show that mouse neurointermediate lobes can be maintained for up to 1 month in defined medium. After 8 days in culture, these explants are devoid of any of the original tyrosine hydroxylase or glutamate decarboxylase immunoreactive fibers, which in situ innervate the melanotropes. Under these culture conditions, no mitotic activity is detectable in melanotropes and these cells remain sensitive to physiological regulation such as dopamine and corticotropin-releasing hormone. Using in situ hybridization and polymerase chain reaction, we show that in situ and in neurointermediate lobe explants, melanotropes express PACAP receptor type I isoforms that transduce through the cAMP and inositol phosphate pathways. In neurointermediate lobe explants, PACAP 27 and PACAP 38 (10(-8) M) stimulate cAMP accumulation whereas PACAP 38 but not PACAP 27 stimulates inositol phosphate breakdown. However, both ligands are potent stimulators of proopiomelanocortin (POMC)-derived peptides exocytosis and POMC gene transcription. In addition, stimulation of POMC gene transcription is mediated both by cAMP and by inositol phosphate pathways. Taken together, our data suggest that PACAP is a major regulator of melanotrope functions.