Leptin, the product of the ob gene, is a pivotal signal in the regulation of neuroendocrine function and fertility. Although much of the action of leptin in the control of the reproductive axis is exerted at the hypothalamic level, some direct effects of leptin on male and female gonads have also been reported. Indeed, recent evidence demonstrated that leptin is able to inhibit testosterone secretion at the testicular level. However, the molecular mechanisms behind this effect remain unclear. The focus of this study was twofold: (1) to identify potential targets for leptin-induced inhibition of steroidogenesis, and (2) to characterize in detail the pattern of expression and cellular distribution of leptin receptor (Ob-R) mRNA in adult rat testis. In pursuit of the first goal, slices of testicular tissue from adult rats were incubated with increasing concentrations of recombinant leptin (10(-9)--10(-7 )M) in the presence of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG; 10 IU/ml). In this setting, testosterone secretion in vitro was monitored, and expression levels of mRNAs encoding steroidogenic factor 1 (SF-1), steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR), cytochrome P450 cholesterol side-chain cleavage enzyme (P450 scc) and 17 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type III (17 beta-HSD) were assessed by Northern hybridization. In pursuit of the second goal, the pattern of cellular expression of the Ob-R gene in adult rat testis was evaluated by in situ hybridization using a riboprobe complementary to all Ob-R isoforms. In addition, testicular expression levels of the different Ob-R isoforms, previously identified in the hypothalamus, were analyzed by means of semi-quantitative RT-PCR. In keeping with our previous data, recombinant leptin significantly inhibited hCG-stimulated testosterone secretion. In this context, leptin, in a dose-dependent manner, was able to co-ordinately decrease the hCG-stimulated expression levels of SF-1, StAR and P450 scc mRNAs, but it did not affect those of 17 beta-HSD type III. In situ hybridization analysis showed a scattered pattern of cellular expression of the Ob-R gene within the adult rat testis, including Leydig and Sertoli cells. In addition, assessment of the pattern of expression of Ob-R subtypes revealed that the long Ob-Rb isoform was abundantly expressed in adult rat testis. However, variable levels of expression of Ob-Ra, Ob-Re, and Ob-Rf mRNAs were also detected, whereas those of the Ob-Rc variant were nearly negligible. In conclusion, our results indicate that decreased expression of mRNAs encoding several up-stream elements in the steroidogenic pathway may contribute, at least partially, to leptin-induced inhibition of testicular steroidogenesis. In addition, our data on the pattern of testicular expression of Ob-R isoforms and cellular distribution of Ob-R mRNA may help to further elucidate the molecular mechanisms of leptin action in rat testis.