1. We sought to determine if catecholamine biosynthetic enzymes of spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) differed from those of normotensive Wistar—Kyoto (WKY) and Sprague—Dawley (SD) control rats before birth.

2. By immunocytochemical and biochemical methods we compared strains for the time of appearance and maturation of the enzymes tyrosine hydroylase (TH), dopamine-β-hydroxylase (DBH) and phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase (PNMT) in sympathetic ganglia and adrenals.

3. The time of appearance of enzymes was identical in all three strains: TH and DBH first appeared in sympathetic ganglia on embryonic day 11 (E11) and in adrenal medulla on E16. PNMT, restricted to adrenal medulla, appeared later on E18.

4. The activity of adrenal TH prenatally on E18 and E21 and at day of birth (P1) in SHR was approximately two fold that in WKY or SD rats. In contrast PNMT was lower in SHR but only on E18.

5. Thus, although the timing of the first expression of adrenergic phenotypes is similar in SHR and normotensive controls, the differences in TH activity in adrenals suggest an enhanced biosynthetic capacity for catecholamines in this strain before birth.

6. We conclude that SHR differ from normotensive rats from the first expression of some of the genes controlling catecholamine biosynthesis.

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