Development of glandular organs such as the kidney, lung, and prostate involves the process of branching morphogenesis. The developing organ begins as an epithelial bud that invades the surrounding mesenchyme, projecting dividing epithelial cords or tubes away from the site of initiation. This is a tightly regulated process that requires complex epithelial-mesenchymal interactions, resulting in a three-dimensional treelike structure. We propose that activins are key growth and differentiation factors during this process. The purpose of this review is to examine the direct, indirect, and correlative lines of evidence to support this hypothesis. The expression of activins is reviewed together with the effect of activins and follistatins in the development of branched organs. We demonstrate that activin has both negative and positive effects on cell growth during branching morphogenesis, highlighting the complex nature of activin in the regulation of proliferation and differentiation. We propose potential mechanisms for the way in which activins modify branching and address the issue of whether activin is a regulator of branching morphogenesis.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.