The formation of the essential functional unit of the ovary, the primordial follicle, occurs during fetal life in humans. Factors regulating oogonial proliferation and interaction with somatic cells before primordial follicle formation are largely unknown. We have investigated the expression, localisation and functional effects of activin and its receptors in the human fetal ovary at 14-21 weeks gestation. Expression of mRNA for the activin betaA and betaB subunits and the activin receptors ActRIIA and ActRIIB was demonstrated by RT-PCR. Expression of betaA mRNA increased 2-fold across the gestational range examined. Activin subunits and receptors were localised by immunohistochemistry. The betaA subunit was expressed by oogonia, and the betaB subunit and activin receptors were expressed by both oogonia and somatic cells. BetaA expression was increased in larger oogonia at later gestations, but was low in oocytes within newly formed primordial follicles. Treatment of ovary fragments with activin A in vitro increased both the number of oogonia present and oogonial proliferation, as detected by bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) incorporation. These data indicate that activin may be involved in the autocrine and paracrine regulation of germ cell proliferation in the human ovary during the crucial period of development leading up to primordial follicle formation.