BACKGROUNDThe ACTH receptor (ACTH-R) is a member of the seven transmembrane domain receptor super-family. In non-functional adrenal adenomas and adrenocortical carcinomas, ACTH-R expression is low. However, no inhibitory factor for ACTH-R expression has been defined to date. DAX-1 (dosage-sensitive sex reversal, adrenal hypoplasia congenita, critical region on the X chromosome, gene-1) is a general repressor of steroid production, inhibiting steroidogenic factor-1 (SF-1)-dependent expression of multiple steroidogenic enzymes. The aim of this study was to investigate whether ACTH-R gene transcription is affected by DAX-1 and whether this mechanism is involved in down-regulation of ACTH-R expression in adrenocortical tumors.METHODSWe screened 22 adrenocortical tumors for ACTH-R and DAX-1 mRNA expression by Northern blot. For in vitro analyses we co-transfected mouse Y1 adrenocortical carcinoma cells with the luciferase reporter gene vector pGL3 containing full-length constructs of human (h) or mouse (m) ACTH-R promoter together with a DAX-1 expression plasmid. These experiments were also performed using ACTH-R promoter 5'-deletion constructs and constructs mutated at the SF-1-binding sites.RESULTSWe found a negative correlation between DAX-1 and ACTH-R mRNA expression (R=-0.47, P<0.02). Accordingly, in vitro expression of DAX-1 significantly reduced hACTH-R and mACTH-R promoter activity by 89 and 55% respectively. DAX-1 inhibition was also present in the shortest construct of a series of 5'-deletion constructs of the human promoter extending from -64 to +40 bp relative to the transcription start site. Mutation of the SF-1-binding sites within the hACTH-R promoter resulted in reduced or abolished DAX-1 inhibition, arguing for a mechanism that involves SF-1 for DAX-1 inhibition.CONCLUSIONSThese data support the concept that DAX-1 is a major repressor of ACTH-R gene expression in vitro and in vivo.