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One of the primary endocrine hormones that influence the onset of Sertoli cell differentiation at puberty and help maintain differentiation in the adult testis is FSH. FSH can modulate the majority of Sertoli cell differentiated functions, including stimulation of the iron-binding protein transferrin. Previous studies have shown that FSH alters the levels of cAMP and the immediate early gene c-fos. The current study was designed to investigate the transcriptional regulation of Sertoli cell differentiation by examining the actions of FSH on the promoter of the immediate early gene c-fos and the promoter of the downstream differentiated function gene transferrin. The regulation of c-fos by FSH was investigated with various chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) constructs containing segments of the c-fos promoter, such as the serum response element (SRE), cAMP response element (CRE), and AP1/phorbol ester/TPA response element (TRE), that were transfected into cultured Sertoli cells. Observations indicate that FSH can stimulate all three response elements, as well as a whole c-fos promoter construct. Interestingly, FSH was found to have a more dramatic effect on the SRE-CAT than a cAMP analog, suggesting a difference in the actions of the two agents. Gel mobility shift assays were performed to confirm the reporter gene results. Nuclear extracts of FSH-stimulated Sertoli cells caused a labeled AP1 oligonucleotide to form a DNA/protein complex (i.e., gel shift), indicating activation of the c-fos gene and binding of the c-fos/jun complex. Nuclear extracts from both FSH- and cAMP-stimulated Sertoli cells promoted similar gel shifts with SRE and CRE oligonucleotides. This observation supports the reporter gene data in indicating that FSH can influence both the SRE and CRE. A gel mobility shift assay was also performed with an oligonucleotide containing the 5'-flanking ETS domain of the SRE (ETS-SRE) that allows the formation of a ternary complex. FSH-stimulated Sertoli cell nuclear extracts were found to promote a unique ETS-SRE gel shift not present in cAMP-stimulated cells. The observations imply that FSH actions on the SRE are in part distinct from the actions of cAMP. Transferrin gene expression was examined to study the downstream regulation of Sertoli cell differentiation. CAT constructs containing deletion mutants of a 3-kb mouse transferrin promoter were used. When transfected into Sertoli cells, the 581-bp transferrin minimal promoter, previously shown to contain a CRE, had a significant response to cAMP and FSH. The 1.6-, 2.6-, and 3-kb transferrin promoter constructs also responded to FSH and cAMP to the same extent as, or to a lesser extent than, the 581- bp minimal promoter. Interestingly, the actions of FSH on the 581-bp minimal transferrin promoter were more dramatic than those of cAMP. The importance of FSH-induced c-fos in the regulation of transferrin expression was demonstrated in the current study when a c-fos antisense oligonucleotide was found to partially inhibit (50%) the ability of FSH to induce the expression of a transferrin promoter (CAT) construct. Therefore, FSH appears to act through multiple transcriptional activation pathways. The first involves cAMP and the CRE at both early-event genes (e.g., c-fos) and downstream genes (e.g., transferrin). It is likely that other pathways involve alternate signal transduction events (e.g., calcium mobilization) and promoter response elements (e.g., SRE). These multiple pathways may act in a compensatory manner to assure the ability of FSH to influence Sertoli cell differentiation and/or in a synergistic manner to amplify FSH actions.