Recent experimental data have revealed that activins and inhibins exert pivotal effects on development. As part of our studies on growth and differentiation of the human fetal adrenal gland, we examined the subunit localization, as well as the mitogenic and steroidogenic actions of activin and inhibin in human fetal and adult adrenals. All three activin and inhibin subunit proteins (alpha, beta A, and beta B) were detected in the fetal and adult adrenal cortex. Immunoreactive activin-A dimer was demonstrated in midgestation fetal and neonatal adrenals. ACTH1-24-stimulated fetal adrenal cell expression of alpha and beta A subunit messenger RNA. In addition, ACTH elicited a rise in levels of immunoreactive alpha subunit secreted by fetal and adult adrenal cells. Human recombinant activin-A inhibited mitogenesis and enhanced ACTH-stimulated cortisol secretion by cultured fetal zone cells, but not definitive zone or adult adrenal cells. Recombinant inhibin-A had no apparent mitogenic or steroidogenic effects. Thus, activin selectively suppressed fetal zone proliferation and enhanced the ACTH-induced shift in the cortisol/dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate ratio of fetal zone steroid production. These data indicate that activin-A may be an autocrine or paracrine factor regulated by ACTH, involved in modulating growth and differentiated function of the human fetal adrenal gland.
S J Spencer, J Rabinovici, S Mesiano, P C Goldsmith, R B Jaffe