CRF and stress in fish

Gert Flik, Peter H.M. Klaren, Erwin H. Van Den Burg, Juriaan R. Metz, Mark O. Huising

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

161 Scopus citations


The endocrine stress response is pivotal in vertebrate physiology. The stress hormone cortisol-the end product of the endocrine stress axis-(re-)directs energy flows for optimal performance under conditions where homeostasis may be or become at risk. Key players in the continuous adaptation process are corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) from the hypothalamic nucleus preopticus (NPO), pituitary adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol produced by the interrenal cells in the headkidney (adrenal equivalent of fish). CRF is a member of a large family of related peptides that signals through CRF-receptor subtypes specific for central and peripheral actions of the peptide. CRF is "chaperoned" by a unique and phylogenetically very well-conserved binding protein (CRFBP); the functions of the CRFBP can only be speculated on so far, but its mRNA and protein abundance are important indicators of the central CRF-system activity, and indeed its mRNA levels are altered by restraint stress. Moreover, the unique structure and size of the CRFBP provide good tools in phylogenetic studies, that date the CRF-system to at least one billion years old. Pro-opiomelanocortin is produced and processed to ACTH and endorphin in the hypothalamic NPO and pituitary pars distalis ACTH-cells, to MSH and acetylated endorphins in the pituitary pars intermedia MSH-cells. ACTH is the prime corticotrope in acute stress conditions. In carp, MSH, considered a mild corticotrope in chronic stress responses in other fish, lacks corticotropic effects (in line with the absence of the melanocortin-5 receptor in headkidney); yet, an unknown corticotropic signal susbtance in the pars intermedia of carp awaits elucidation. Interesting observations were made on the CRF control of pituitary cells. CRF stimulates ACTH-cells, but only when these cells experience a mild dopaminergic block. Endorphin, produced in the NPO and transported via axons to the pituitary gland in vivo, reverses the stimulatory CRF action on MSH-cells to a differential inhibition of N-acetyl β-endorphin release in vitro (MSH release is not affected). We speculate that the consistently observed elevation of plasma MSH during chronic stress may exert central actions related to feeding and leptin regulated processes. A BOLD-fMRI study revealed the functional anatomy of the stress response at work in a paradigm, where carp were exposed to a sudden water temperature drop. In carp (and other fish), the endocrine stress axis is already operational in very early life stages, viz., around hatching and comprises hypothalamic, pituitary, and interrenal signaling to adjust the physiology of the hatchling to its dynamically changing environment. Understanding of stress during early life stages is critical as the consequent rises in cortisol may have long lasting effects on survival and fish quality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)36-44
Number of pages9
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • ACTH
  • Aquaculture
  • Common carp
  • CRF
  • CRFR1
  • CRFR2
  • Cyprinus carpio
  • Headkidney
  • Larvae
  • MSH
  • Nucleus preopticus
  • Pituitary gland
  • POMC

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Endocrinology


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