Activins are known to be potentially important regulators of early developmental processes in amphibians, birds, and mammalians. In this study we report the expression of the inhibin subunits, including those that make up activin, the activin-binding protein follistatin, and activin receptor type II in several in vitro systems that model early murine embryonic development, namely embryonic stem (ES) cells, embryonal carcinoma (EC) cells, and their differentiated derivatives. In addition, we examine the expression pattern of these factors in different stages of the mouse embryo itself. Expression of inhibin alpha and beta A subunits is restricted to certain differentiated cell types, while beta B subunits are expressed in both differentiated and undifferentiated cells. Our results further indicate a change in the expression pattern of inhibin subunits during early development from beta B at the blastocyst stage largely to beta A in postgastrulation embryos. This is similar to the expression pattern at equivalent stages of Xenopus and chick development. Expression of the activin-binding protein follistatin is altered by the induction of differentiation of P19 EC and ES cells by several factors, including retinoic acid. In contrast to the inhibin subunits and follistatin, activin receptor levels are not influenced by differentiation in these cell types. The results of this study demonstrate that the inhibin subunits and follistatin, but not the activin receptor type II, are differentially expressed during early murine development and suggest that the different forms of activin/inhibin are involved in the regulation of different developmental processes.