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Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2002 Oct;227(9):724-52.

Activins, inhibins, and follistatins: from endocrinology to signaling. A paradigm for the new millennium.

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Reproductive Endocrine Unit and Endocrine Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston 02114, USA.


It has been 70 years since the name inhibin was used to describe a gonadal factor that negatively regulated pituitary hormone secretion. The majority of this period was required to achieve purification and definitive characterization of inhibin, an event closely followed by identification and characterization of activin and follistatin (FS). In contrast, the last 15-20 years saw a virtual explosion of information regarding the biochemistry, physiology, and biosynthesis of these proteins, as well as identification of activin receptors, and a unique mechanism for FS action-the nearly irreversible binding and neutralization of activin. Many of these discoveries have been previously summarized; therefore, this review will cover the period from the mid 1990s to present, with particular emphasis on emerging themes and recent advances. As the field has matured, recent efforts have focused more on human studies, so the endocrinology of inhibin, activin, and FS in the human is summarized first. Another area receiving significant recent attention is local actions of activin and its regulation by both FS and inhibin. Because activin and FS are produced in many tissues, we chose to focus on a few particular examples with the most extensive experimental support, the pituitary and the developing follicle, although nonreproductive actions of activin and FS are also discussed. At the cellular level, it now seems that activin acts largely as an autocrine and/or paracrine growth factor, similar to other members of the transforming growh factor beta superfamily. As we discuss in the next section, its actions are regulated extracellularly by both inhibin and FS. In the final section, intracellular mediators and modulators of activin signaling are reviewed in detail. Many of these are shared with other transforming growh factor beta superfamily members as well as unrelated molecules, and in a number of cases, their physiological relevance to activin signal propagation remains to be elucidated. Nevertheless, taken together, recent findings suggest that it may be more appropriate to consider a new paradigm for inhibin, activin, and FS in which activin signaling is regulated extracellularly by both inhibin and FS whereas a number of intracellular proteins act to modulate cellular responses to these activin signals. It is therefore the balance between activin and all of its modulators, rather than the actions of any one component, that determines the final biological outcome. As technology and model systems become more sophisticated in the next few years, it should become possible to test this concept directly to more clearly define the role of activin, inhibin, and FS in reproductive physiology.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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