Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), is a potent stimulator of synthesis and secretion of preopiomelanocortin-derived peptides. Although CRF concentrations in the human peripheral circulation are normally low, they increase throughout pregnancy and fall rapidly after parturition. Maternal plasma CRF probably originates from the placenta, which responds to the bioactive peptide and produces the peptide and its messenger RNA. Even though CRF concentrations in late gestational maternal plasma are similar to those in rat hypothalamic portal blood and to those that can stimulate release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in vitro, maternal plasma ACTH concentrations increase only slightly with advancing gestation and remain within the normal range. Several groups have now reported the existence of a CRF-binding protein in human plasma which inactivates CRF and which has been proposed to prevent inappropriate pituitary-adrenal stimulation in pregnancy. The binding protein was recently purified from human plasma. We have now isolated and partially sequenced the binding protein, allowing us to clone and characterize its complementary DNA from human liver and rat brain. Expression of the cDNAs for human and rat binding protein in COS7 cells showed that these proteins bind CRF with the same affinity as the native human protein. Both rat and human recombinant binding proteins inhibit CRF binding to a CRF antibody and inhibit CRF-induced ACTH release by pituitary cells in vitro.