The Mel 1a receptor gene has recently been cloned and sequenced, and its product has been found to represent a new class of the G protein-coupled receptor superfamily. A unique aspect of its endogenous hormonal ligand, melatonin, is the prolonged duration (16 h) required to initiate appropriate photoperiodic responses in the animal. This study provides the first data on the transcriptional and translational regulation of this receptor in primary cultures of its native tissue, the pars tuberalis of the ovine pituitary. Using RNAse protection assays we show Mel 1a mRNA expression is rapidly induced through changes in intracellular cAMP levels. Forskolin enhances Mel 1a mRNA expression, whereas melatonin reverses this effect. RNA stability is also a factor, as Mel 1a mRNA expression decreases rapidly in the presence of actinomycin D. Although the expression of receptor protein is sensitive to forskolin stimulation, the lag between induction of mRNA and protein suggests that other factors (e.g. RNA splicing) contribute to functional receptor expression. Furthermore we observed that both mRNA and receptor protein levels increase spontaneously during primary culture, and these rises could be blocked by melatonin. A spontaneous rise in Mel 1a mRNA can also occur in serum-depleted cultures. In the absence of corresponding changes in cAMP, these results suggest not only that the Mel 1a receptor can autoregulate its own expression by an undefined pathway, but also they provide the first evidence that melatonin can act via a cAMP-independent signal transduction pathway to repress transcription in this tissue.