A primary physiological function of follistatin is the binding and neutralization of activin, a transforming growth factor-beta family growth factor, and loss of function mutations are lethal. Despite the critical biological importance of follistatin's neutralization of activin, the structural basis of activin's binding to follistatin is poorly understood. The purposes of these studies were 1) to identify the primary sequence(s) within the N-terminal domain of the follistatin coding for activin binding, and 2) to determine whether activin binding to the native protein causes changes in other structural domains of follistatin. Synthetic peptide mimotopes identified within a 63-residue N-terminal domain two discontinuous sequences capable of binding labeled activin A. The first is located in a region (amino acids 3-26) of follistatin, a site previously identified by directed mutagenesis as important for activin binding. The second epitope, predicted to be located between amino acids 46 and 59, is newly identified. Although the sequences 3-26 and 46-59 code for activin binding, native follistatin only binds activin if disulfide bonding is intact. Furthermore, pyridylethylation of Cys residues followed by N-terminal sequencing and amino acid analysis revealed that all of the Cys residues in follistatin are involved in disulfide bonds and lack reactive free sulfhydryl groups. Specific ligands were used to probe the structural effects of activin binding on the other domains of the full-length molecule, comprised largely of the three 10-Cys follistatin module domains. No effects on ligand binding to follistatin-like module I or II were observed after the binding of activin A to native protein. In contrast, activin binding diminished recognition of domain III and enhanced that of the C domain by their respective monoclonal antibody probes, indicating an alteration of the antigenic structures of these regions. Thus, subsequent to activin binding, interactions are likely to occur between regions of follistatin located in different domains and separated by considerable lengths of linear sequence. Such interactions could have important functional significance with respect to the structural heterogeneity of naturally occurring follistatins.