Regulation of catecholamine biosynthesis is crucial in the adaptation to various physiological conditions, such as stress, and in several disorders, including hypertension and depression. In this study we have found that in PC12 cells, the mRNA levels of dopamine beta-hydroxylase (DBH), the enzyme that catalyzes the formation of norepinephrine from dopamine, can be regulated by glucocorticoids and cyclic AMP (cAMP) analogues. Treatment with dexamethasone increased DBH mRNA levels by 6 h. with maximal elevation (four- to fivefold) obtained after 1 day of exposure, and these levels were maintained for up to 4 days. DBH mRNA levels were also elevated on treatment of PC12 cells with 8-bromo cAMP for 8 h to 1 day. The response to 8-bromo cAMP, however, was bimodal, because DBH mRNA levels declined below control values on treatment for > 1 day. In combined treatments with 8-bromo cAMP and dexamethasone, the cAMP effect was dominant. To begin to characterize the regulation of DBH mRNA, genomic clones for rat DBH were isolated, and 1 kb of the 5' flanking region was sequenced. Several putative regulatory elements, which may be involved in cAMP and glucocorticoid regulation, were identified, including two adjacent cAMP response elements, another element that can also bind members of the ATF/CREB family of transcription factors, a NF-kappa B-like sequence, several AP-2 sites, and three core glucocorticoid receptor binding sequences.