We recently demonstrated that the number of primordial follicles was significantly reduced in the ovaries of near-term baboon fetuses deprived of estrogen in utero and restored to normal in animals administered estradiol. Although the baboon fetal ovary expressed estrogen receptors alpha and beta, the mechanism(s) of estrogen action remains to be determined. It is well established that inhibin and activins function as autocrine/paracrine factors that impact adult ovarian function. However, our understanding of the expression of these factors in the primate fetal ovary is incomplete. Therefore, we determined the expression of alpha-inhibin, activin beta(A), activin beta(B), and activin receptors in fetal ovaries obtained at mid and late gestation from untreated baboons and at late gestation from animals in which fetal estrogen levels were reduced by >95% by maternal administration of the aromatase inhibitor CGS 20267 or restored to 30% of normal by treatment with CGS 20267 and estradiol benzoate. Immunocytochemical expression of alpha-inhibin was minimal to nondetectable in fetal ovaries from untreated baboons. In contrast, in baboons depleted of estrogen, alpha-inhibin was abundantly expressed in pregranulosa cells of interfollicular nests and granulosa cells of primordial follicles. Thus, the number (mean +/- SEM) per 0.08 mm2 of fetal ovarian cells expressing alpha-inhibin, determined by image analysis, was similar at mid and late gestation and increased approximately 8-fold (P < 0.01) near term in baboons treated with CGS 20267 and was restored (P < 0.01) to normal in baboons treated with CGS 20267 plus estradiol. Activin beta(A) was detected in oocytes and pregranulosa cells at midgestation and in oocytes and granulosa cells of primordial follicles at late gestation. Activin beta(B) was also expressed in pregranulosa cells and granulosa cells at mid and late gestation, respectively, but was not detected in oocytes. Neither the pattern nor the apparent level of expression of activin beta(A) or beta(B) were altered in fetal ovaries of baboons treated with CGS 20267 or CGS 20267 and estrogen. Activin receptors IA, IB, IIA, and IIB were detected by Western blot analysis in fetal ovaries at mid and late gestation, and expression was not altered by treatment with CGS 20267 or CGS 20267 and estrogen. Activin receptors IB and IIA were localized to oocytes and pregranulosa cells at midgestation and to granulosa cells and oocytes of primordial follicles at late gestation. Thus, the decrease in the number of follicles in the primate fetal ovary of baboons deprived of estrogen in utero was associated with increased expression of alpha-inhibin. Therefore, we propose that estrogen regulates fetal ovarian follicular development by controlling alpha-inhibin expression and, thus, the intraovarian inhibin:activin ratio.