The aim of the present study was to determine whether activin A concentrations are dependent on feto-placental oxygen availability and to investigate the temporal relationship of activin A with prostaglandin (PG) E(2) and cortisol. Nine fetal sheep (six hypoxic and three control) were instrumented and catheterised at 0.8 gestation. Reduced uterine blood flow was used to achieve three levels of hypoxia (mild = fetal SaO(2) 40-50%; moderate = fetal SaO(2) 30-40%; severe = fetal SaO(2) 20-30%), for 4 h on 3 consecutive days. Activin A, PGE(2) and cortisol levels were determined in maternal and fetal blood and amniotic fluid. Moderate and severe hypoxia produced a significant (P < 0.05) increase in fetal plasma activin A concentrations. The amniotic fluid activin A concentrations were 15-fold higher than those in the fetal circulation, but were unchanged by hypoxia. The fetal PGE(2) response reflected the degree of hypoxia over the 3 days, with moderate and severe hypoxia producing a significant (P < 0.05) increase in PGE(2) concentrations. Fetal plasma cortisol concentrations were increased ( P < 0.05) during all levels of hypoxia. Fetal arterial activin A was increased in response to moderate and severe hypoxia, but levels were not maintained over the hypoxic period. The increases in activin A and cortisol concentrations preceded the increase in PGE(2).