We wished to establish an in vitro culture system to examine gene expression in the context of differentiated function with rhesus monkey syncytiotrophoblasts. Chorionic villous tissue from placentas obtained at cesarean section was dispersed with trypsin and DNase and fractionated on a 5-70% Percoll gradient. When placed in culture, cells from a mononuclear fraction demonstrated to be very highly enriched (95-97% pure) for cytotrophoblasts aggregated and began to form syncytia within 24 h in culture, reminiscent of placental syncytiotrophoblast formation. The migration and fusion of individual cytotrophoblasts to form multinuclear syncytia were documented with time-lapse video microscopy. Incorporation studies with tritiated thymidine supported the conclusion from videomicroscopy that syncytia form by the fusion of individual cells and the addition of mononuclear cells to existing syncytia, rather than by endomitosis. The syncytiotrophoblast marker pregnancy-specific beta 1-glycoprotein (SP1) was immunocytochemically identified in both intact placenta and cultured syncytiotrophoblast cells. With cells isolated from placentas obtained on day 28, 50, 70, or 140 of pregnancy, treatment with 8-bromo-cAMP increased both rhesus monkey CG alpha-subunit (mCG alpha) and chorionic somatomammotropin (mCS) mRNA levels by an average of 4-fold. Increases of up to 2.5-fold were seen with mCG alpha mRNA in as little as 2 h after treatment, with a statistically significant average response seen within 6 h. The response with mCS required at least 24 h before a significant effect was seen. Actin mRNA levels were generally unchanged or suppressed by this treatment, indicating that the effect of 8-bromo-cAMP is relatively specific for the hormone mRNAs. Treatment of syncytiotrophoblasts with dexamethasone, but not progesterone or androstenedione, resulted in an approximately 4-fold increase in mCG alpha mRNA levels within 6 h of treatment. Steroid treatment did not affect mCS mRNA levels. Treatment with 4.5-400 nM GnRH or 0.1 to 100 ng/ml basic fibroblast growth factor likewise had no effect on the level of either mRNA, suggesting that any actions of these factors on hormone secretion are not effected via changes in steady state mRNA. These results communicate that the expression of the mRNAs for rhesus monkey CG alpha and CS in syncytiotrophoblast are regulated by steroid hormone- and cAMP-mediated pathways.