We have demonstrated that dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) acts directly on rat zona fasciculata-reticularis (ZFR) cells to diminish corticosterone secretion by an inhibition of post-cAMP pathway, and decreases functions of steroidogenic enzymes after P450(scc) as well as steroidogenic acute regulatory (StAR) protein expression. However, the mechanisms by which DHEA engages with environmental messenger signals which translate into interfering StAR protein expression are still unclear. This study explored the effects of DHEA on the phosphorylation/activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERKs). ERK activation resulted in enhancing phosphorylation of steroidogenic factor-1 (SF-1) and increased StAR protein expression. ZFR cells were incubated in the presence or absence of adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), forskolin (FSK), 25-OH-cholesterol, U0126, and H89 at 37 degrees C. The concentration of corticosterone released into the media was measured by radioimmunoassay (RIA). The cells were used to extract protein for Western blot analysis of ERKs or StAR protein expression or immunoprecipitation of SF-1 analysis. The results suggested that (1) ERK pathway of rat ZFR cells might be PKA dependent, (2) ERK activity was required for SF-1 phosphorylation to upregulate steroidogenesis in rat ZFR cells, and (3) DHEA did not affect ERK phosphorylation, however, it attenuated forskolin-stimulated SF-1 phosphorylation to affect StAR protein expression.