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Development. 1993 Feb;117(2):711-23.

Activins are expressed in preimplantation mouse embryos and in ES and EC cells and are regulated on their differentiation.

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  • 1Laboratory of Developmental Biology, National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, UK.


Members of the activin family have been suggested to act as mesoderm-inducing factors during early amphibian development. Little is known, however, about mesoderm formation in the mammalian embryo, and as one approach to investigating this we have studied activin expression during early mouse development. Activins are homo- or heterodimers of the beta A or beta B subunits of inhibin, itself a heterodimer consisting of one of the beta subunits together with an alpha subunit. Our results indicate that the oocyte contains mRNA encoding all three subunits, and antibody staining demonstrates the presence of both alpha and beta protein chains. From the fertilized egg stage onwards, alpha subunit protein cannot be detected, so the presence of beta subunits reflects the presence of activin rather than inhibin. Maternal levels of activin protein decline during early cleavage stages but increase, presumably due to zygotic transcription (see below), in the compacted morula. By 3.5 days, only the inner cell mass (ICM) cells of the blastocyst express activin, but at 4.5 days the situation is reversed; activin expression is confined to the trophectoderm. Using reverse transcription-PCR, neither beta A nor beta B mRNA was detectable at the two-cell stage but transcripts encoding both subunits were detectable at the morula stage, with beta B mRNA persisting into the blastocyst. We have also analyzed activin and inhibin expression in ES and EC cells. Consistent with the observation that activins are expressed in the ICM of 3.5-day blastocysts, we find high levels of beta A and beta B mRNA in all eight ES cell lines tested. F9 EC cells express only activin beta B, together with low levels of the inhibin alpha chain. When ES and EC cells are induced to differentiate, levels of activin fall dramatically. These results are consistent with a role for activins in mesoderm formation and other steps of early mouse development.

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