Tryptic digestion of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) isolated from rat adrenal glands labeled with 32Pi produced five phosphopeptides. Based on the correspondence of these phosphopeptides with those identified in TH from rat pheochromocytoma cells, four phosphorylation sites (Ser8, Ser19, Ser31, and Ser40) were inferred. Field stimulation of the splanchnic nerves at either 1 or 10 Hz (300 pulses) increased 32P incorporation into TH. At 10 Hz, the phosphorylation of Ser19 and Ser40 was increased, whereas at 1 Hz, Ser19, Ser31, and Ser40 phosphorylation was increased. Stimulation at either 1 or 10 Hz also increased the catalytic activity of TH, as measured in vitro (pH 7.2) at either 30 or 300 microM tetrahydrobiopterin. Nicotine (3 microM, 3 min) increased Ser19 phosphorylation, vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (10 microM, 3 min) increased Ser40 phosphorylation, and muscarine (100 microM, 3 min) increased TH phosphorylation primarily at Ser19 and Ser31. Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, but not nicotine or muscarine, mimicked the effects of field stimulation on TH activity. Thus, the regulation of rat adrenal medullary TH phosphorylation by nerve impulses is mediated by multiple first and second messenger systems, as previously shown for catecholamine secretion. However, different sets of second messengers are involved in the two processes. The action of vasoactive intestinal polypeptide as a secretagogue involves the mobilization of intracellular calcium, whereas its effects on TH phosphorylation are mediated by cyclic AMP. This latter effect of vasoactive intestinal polypeptide and the consequent increase in Ser40 phosphorylation appear to be responsible for the rapid activation of TH by splanchnic nerve stimulation.