FSH synthesis and secretion are regulated by a complex interplay of hypothalamic, gonadal, and pituitary factors. Recent evidence suggests that inhibin, activin, and follistatin, although originally identified as gonadal peptides, are also expressed in the pituitary, where they may be secreted and play an autocrine/paracrine role in the control of FSH beta gene expression. Attempts to study pituitary regulation of the genes encoding these proteins have been hampered by low levels of mRNA expression. Consequently, we developed quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction assays for follistatin (FS) and the three subunits (alpha, beta A, and beta B) that comprise activin and inhibin. Expression of activin type II receptor (actRII) mRNA was also analyzed. Reasoning that mRNA levels of these FSH-regulating pituitary peptides might be modulated at times of increased FSH gene expression, two in vivo models were chosen for further investigation. 1) Two weeks after ovariectomy, rat pituitary FS mRNA levels increased substantially (4.09-fold vs. intact) with a modest increase in beta B-inhibin mRNA levels (1.88-fold vs. intact). No changes in alpha-inhibin, beta A-inhibin, or actRII mRNA levels were observed. 2) During the estrous cycle, pituitary FS gene expression varied strikingly, with a peak at 1800 h on proestrus (13.69-fold vs. 0900 h on proestrus), followed by a rapid decline at 2400 h on proestrus (2.10-fold vs. 0900 h on proestrus). A more detailed analysis of expression during proestrus revealed that peak FS mRNA levels preceded peak FSH beta gene expression by 6 h. Levels of the inhibin subunit and actRII transcripts varied minimally across the estrous cycle. We conclude that during the estrous cycle in rats, pituitary FS mRNA levels are regulated dynamically, whereas levels of inhibin/activin subunits and the activin receptor, actRII, very minimally. The observation that FS mRNA levels peak before maximal expression of FSH beta mRNA raises the possibility that FS facilitates, rather than inhibits, FSH biosynthesis in vivo.
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