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While certain genetic changes are frequently found in adrenocortical carcinoma cells, the molecular basis of adrenocortical tumorigenesis remains poorly understood. Given that the transcription factors GATA-4 and GATA-6 have been implicated in gene expression and cellular differentiation in a variety of tissues, including endocrine organs such as testis, we have now examined their expression in the developing adrenal gland, as well as in adrenocortical cell lines and tumors from mice and humans. Northern blot analysis and in situ hybridization revealed abundant GATA-6 mRNA in the fetal and postnatal adrenal cortex of the mouse. In contrast, little or no GATA-4 expression was detected in adrenal tissue during normal development. In vivo stimulation with ACTH or suppression with dexamethasone did not affect the expression of GATA-4 or GATA-6 in the murine adrenal gland. To assess whether changes in the expression of GATA-4 or GATA-6 accompany adrenocortical tumorigenesis, we employed an established mouse model. When gonadectomized, inhibin alpha/SV40 T-antigen transgenic mice develop adrenocortical tumors in a gonadotropin-dependent fashion. In striking contrast to the normal adrenal glands, GATA-6 mRNA was absent from adrenocortical tumors or tumor-derived cell lines, while GATA-4 mRNA and protein were abundantly expressed in the tumors and tumor cell lines. Analogous results were obtained with human tissue samples; GATA-4 expression was detected in human adrenocortical carcinomas but not in normal tissue, adenomas, or pheochromocytomas. Taken together these results suggest different roles for GATA-4 and GATA-6 in the adrenal gland, and implicate GATA-4 in adrenal tumorigenesis. Immunohistochemical detection of GATA-4 may serve as a useful marker in the differential diagnosis of human adrenal tumors.