Heart muscle tissue has previously been reported to have the highest content of preproenkephalin (ppEnk) mRNA of any tissue in the adult rat. We have determined that it is present in the ventricular cardiac muscle cells of the heart and is developmentally regulated. The expression of ppEnk mRNA was observed to be low throughout the first 2 weeks of postnatal development and decreases substantially during week 3. Expression was again low by week 4, but by adulthood (approx. 3 months), it reached a maximum. ppEnk mRNA was actively expressed in primary cardiac muscle cell cultures prepared from both neonatal and adult rats. Its steady-state content in cell cultures was observed to be increased by cyclic AMP and 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine. The phorbol ester phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate elicited a transient effect (i.e. an increase was observed at 4 h and a return to control values by 24 h). We speculate that enkephalin may play a multi-functional role in the differentiation of neonatal cardiac muscle cells and in the terminally differentiated adult heart cell. We demonstrate that the primary culture systems employed in this study will be useful models with which to explore both transcriptional and translational regulation of ppEnk mRNA in the heart.

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