The proopiomelanocortin (POMC) gene expressed in corticotrophs of the anterior pituitary encodes several biologically active peptides and is primarily under the positive control of hypophysiotropic factors (e.g. corticotropin releasing hormone). Using AtT20 cells as a model, we show that these factors increase levels of POMC primary RNA transcripts representative of a transcriptional activation of the gene. This effect is mimicked by several activators of the cAMP signaling pathway. Inhibition of protein synthesis with cycloheximide did not modify the CRH-induced increase in POMC hnRNA suggesting that these early effects are mediated by preexisting transcription factors. Using a reporter gene containing 706 bp of the POMC promoter region, we observe transcriptional activation with the same compounds, their effects being abolished when protein kinase A (PKA) is inactivated by a dominant inhibitory mutant. Promoter deletion analyses mapped an essential cAMP inducible element within the first exon of the POMC gene. This element (PTRE: TGACTAA) located at nucleotides +41/+47 was shown to bind the cAMP responsive element binding protein (CREB) by gel shift analyses and confers strong transcriptional activation by an expression vector coding a CREB-VP16 activator domain fusion protein. Further, expression of a dominant inhibitory mutant of CREB reduced cAMP stimulated transcription of the full length POMC promoter and the PTRE. Taken together, these results show that the major hypophysiotropic factors stimulate POMC transcription through a signaling cascade that involves PKA and CREB.