We have proposed that estrogen, via regulation of the placental 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11 beta-HSD) enzyme(s) catalyzing the oxidation of cortisol to its inactive metabolite cortisone, regulates the baboon fetal pituitary-adrenocortical axis and the onset of de novo production of cortisol by the fetus near term. In support of this hypothesis we have demonstrated that the increase in expression of the mRNA for the ACTH precursor proopiomelanocortin (POMC) in the fetal pituitary and in the specific activity of steroidogenic enzymes in the fetal adrenal normally observed at term were enhanced at midgestation by maternal estrogen administration. However, it is not known whether activation of the fetal pituitary reflects a concomitant increase in corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) mRNA expression and/or peptide production by the fetal hypothalamus. Therefore, an aim of the present study was to determine whether the increase in POMC mRNA in fetal baboons delivered at term, and at midgestation to mothers treated with estradiol, reflected an increase in hypothalamic CRH. Fetal hypothalami were obtained on Day 100 (n = 6) and Day 165 of gestation (term = Day 184) from untreated baboons (n = 5) and on Day 100 from baboons (n = 4) whose mother had been treated daily with 1.0 mg estradiol on Days 70 to 100. Hypothalamic CRH peptide concentrations were determined by RIA, and CRH mRNA expression was quantified by in situ hybridization in sections of the fetal hypothalamus through the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) using a 48-base synthetic oligodeoxynucleotide probe 3' end-labeled with [35S]dATP. The mean (+/- SE) maternal serum estradiol concentration in baboons treated with estradiol at midgestation (2.4 +/- 0.4 ng/ml) was greater (p < 0.05) than that in untreated baboons on Day 100 (1.0 +/- 0.2), but similar to that in late gestation (2.0 +/- 0.2). The mean steady-state concentration of CRH in the baboon fetal hypothalamus at midgestation (15.8 +/- 6.0 ng/g tissue) was not altered in fetuses whose mothers had been treated with estradiol (17.6 +/- 0.9 ng/g). Hypothalamic CRH concentrations in fetal baboons of late gestation (20.7 ng/g; n = 2) were also similar to mean CRH values measured at midgestation but, owing to the marked increase in weight of the fetal hypothalamus with advancing pregnancy, the content of hypothalamic CRH in late gestation (28.8 ng/structure) exceeded (p < 0.01) that at midgestation. Mean levels of CRH mRNA at midgestation when expressed per cell (17.4 +/- 1.3 grains per cell) or per unit area of PVN (375 +/- 20 grains per area) were similar to respective values in late gestation (18.3 +/- 1.1 grains per cell; 350 +/- 55 grains per area; n = 3 per group). These findings support the suggestion that the increase in fetal pituitary POMC mRNA expression and ACTH peptide previously reported to occur normally between midgestation and term are not associated with a concomitant increase in hypothalamic CRH peptide or CRH mRNA concentrations. Moreover, it would appear that by midgestation, hypothalamic CRH is available in adequate concentrations to "drive" the fetal pituitary and that it is the levels of maternal cortisol arriving within the fetal circulation, as dictated by estrogen-regulated placental 11 beta-HSD-oxidase activity, that establish the extent to which the fetal pituitary responds to CRH.