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J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1994 Jun;78(6):1521-4.

The tissue distribution of activin beta A- and beta B-subunit and follistatin messenger ribonucleic acids suggests multiple sites of action for the activin-follistatin system during human development.

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Department of Bacteriology and Immunology, University of Helsinki, Finland.


Activins have potent effects on early morphogenetic events during amphibian embryogenesis but no evidence for their role during human development other than their expression in steroidogenic tissues has been reported. We previously showed the expression of the activin type II and IIB receptor mRNAs in several tissues of the mid-gestational human fetus with highest expression levels in developing neural, muscular and exocrine glandular organs. We now report that the mRNA transcripts for activin beta A- and beta B-subunits and for the activin-binding protein follistatin are found co-expressed in several of these extragonadal tissues. Their mRNAs were detected by Northern analyses using specific single-stranded 32P-labeled cDNA probes. In the nervous system, both activin beta A- and beta B-subunit transcripts were expressed in the cerebrum and spinal cord. Follistatin was abundantly expressed in the spinal cord whereas weaker signals where observed in the cerebrum and cerebellum. In the muscular system, beta A-subunit was abundantly expressed in the heart but to a lesser extent in the skeletal muscle while the opposite was observed for follistatin. Follistatin, and activin beta A- and beta B-subunit mRNAs were also detected in developing kidney, salivary gland, liver, and adrenal. The predominance of beta A-subunit mRNAs in the bone marrow and beta B-subunit mRNAs in the salivary gland suggests specific roles for activin A and B, respectively, in these tissues. No hybridization signal was detected for the inhibin alpha-subunit in non-steroidogenic tissues indicating that, in contrast to activins and follistatin, the effects of inhibins may be restricted to the gonads and adrenals which are known to express high levels of the alpha-subunit transcript. Taken together, our results suggest that the activin-follistatin system regulates the development of several organ systems in the mid-gestational human fetus.

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