We investigated the expression of the mRNA encoding the oxytocin receptor (OTR) in rat myometrium throughout gestation and its regulation by progesterone and mechanical stretch. Using a semiquantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction approach, OTR mRNA was found to increase abruptly at the onset of spontaneous labor at term. Progesterone (4 mg/day) starting on Day 20 of gestation blocked this increase. Ovariectomy on Day 17 induced preterm labor 96 h after surgery and a significant increase in myometrial OTR mRNA levels 48 and 96 h after surgery. Both preterm labor and the rise in myometrial OTR expression were blocked by progesterone. To investigate the effects of stretch on myometrial OTR mRNA expression, unilaterally pregnant rats underwent either sham operation or placement of a tube in the nongravid uterine horn to distend the myometrium. On Day 20, stretch had no effect on OTR expression in the nongravid horns. During labor, OTR mRNA was highly expressed in the gravid horns as well as the nongravid stretched horns. In contrast, the level remained low in the nongravid unstretched horns. These results indicate that expression of rat myometrial OTR mRNA during pregnancy and labor is regulated by coordinated interactions between mechanical and endocrine signals.