Genetic mutation or loss of activin/transforming growth factor-beta (TGFbeta) receptor function has been shown in human lymphoid, breast, and colorectal tumors as well as Hep2B and Mv1Lu cell lines. Although activin stimulates FSHbeta biosynthesis and secretion, a large percentage of human gonadotroph tumors have previously been demonstrated to be nonresponsive to characterized activin effects. This phenotype may be indicative of loss of functional cell surface receptors and/or intracellular signaling mediators of activin responses. Several studies examining the structure/function of type I and II receptors specific for ligands in the TGFbeta superfamily have delineated the critical regions for receptor intracellular kinase function. In the case of TGFbeta, inactivating mutations in these regions have been shown to render these receptors kinase deficient by a dominant negative phenotype and result in resistance to growth arrest. We therefore hypothesized that activin/TGFbeta cell surface receptors may act as tumor suppressors in human pituitary tumors, and that inactivating genetic mutations in the intracellular kinase region of this gene family may release pituicytes from normal growth suppression by activin through a similar mechanism. We used single stranded conformational polymorphism analysis to examine 2 intracellular regions required for type I receptor signaling by human Alk1-5 type I receptors as well as the entire coding region of 2 activin type II receptors and the TGFbeta type II receptor in 64 human pituitary tumors. A novel polymorphism was found in 45% of tumors at codon P117 of the ActRIIA gene and was used as a positive control for single stranded conformational polymorphism. One patient with a gonadotroph tumor had a confirmed A482V germline mutation in the Alk1 gene within kinase subdomains X-XI. No other mutations were detected in any tumor studied. These data suggest that somatic mutations within these intracellular kinase regions of type I/type II receptors are rare in human pituitary tumors.