Ghrelin, the endogenous ligand for the growth hormone-secretagogue receptor, is a recently cloned 28-amino acid peptide, expressed primarily in the stomach and hypothalamus, with the ability to stimulate growth hormone (GH) release and food intake. However, the possibility of additional, as yet unknown biological actions of ghrelin has been suggested. As a continuation of our recent findings on the expression and functional role of ghrelin in rat testis, we report here the pattern of cellular expression of ghrelin peptide in rat testis during postnatal development and after selective Leydig cell elimination, and we assess hormonal regulation of testicular ghrelin expression, at the mRNA and/or protein levels, in different experimental models. Immunohistochemical analyses along postnatal development demonstrated selective location of ghrelin peptide within rat testis in mature fetal- and adult-type Leydig cells. In good agreement, ghrelin protein appeared undetectable in testicular interstitium after selective Leydig cell withdrawal. In terms of hormonal regulation, testicular ghrelin mRNA and protein expression decreased to negligible levels after long-term hypophysectomy, whereas replacement with human chorionic gonadotropin (CG) (as superagonist of LH) partially restored ghrelin mRNA and peptide expression. Furthermore, acute administration of human CG (25 IU) to intact rats resulted in a transient increase in testicular ghrelin mRNA levels, with peak values 4 h after injection, an effect that was not mimicked by FSH (12.5 IU/rat). In contrast, testicular expression of ghrelin mRNA remained unaltered in GH-deficient rats, under hyper- and hypothyroidism conditions, as well as in adrenalectomized animals. In conclusion, our results demonstrate that mature Leydig cells are the source of ghrelin expression in rat testis, the protein being expressed in both fetal- and adult-type Leydig cells. In addition, our data indicate that testicular expression of ghrelin is hormonally regulated and is at least partially dependent on pituitary LH.
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