The effect of a single sc injection of the gonadal peptide, recombinant human activin A (rhActivin A), on gonadotropin synthesis and secretion was examined in adult and immature male and female rats and the effect of recombinant human inhibin A (rhInhibin A) was examined in adult male rats. Pituitary FSH beta, LH beta and alpha messenger RNA (mRNA) levels were determined by blot hybridization. Trunk blood was collected to measure serum FSH levels. Treatment with rhInhibin A (100 micrograms/kg) resulted in a decrease in FSH beta mRNA to 2% of controls levels 6 h after injection. FSH beta mRNA levels started to rebound at 10 h, but were still significantly lower than vehicle-treated controls. Serum FSH levels were significantly reduced at 2 h and were reduced further at 6 and 10 h. There were no significant changes in alpha and LH beta mRNA levels. RhActivin A, at the highest dose (500 micrograms/kg), in immature male rats had only a modest effect (1.2- and 1.3-fold increase) on FSH beta mRNA levels and FSH secretion, respectively, at 2 h. No increase in FSH synthesis and FSH secretion was observed in adult male rats. In contrast, both immature and adult-ovariectomized E2 implanted females showed a robust response to rhActivin A. In immature females, 2 h after rhActivin A (100 and 500 micrograms/kg) administration, FSH beta mRNA levels were elevated 2.0- and 2.2-fold. At this time serum FSH was also elevated. At 6 and 10 h rhActivin A significantly reduced FSH beta mRNA levels from vehicle-treated controls. In contrast, FSH secretion was elevated at 6 h and returned to baseline at 10 h. Administration of rhActivin A (500 micrograms/kg) to adult, ovariectomized-E2 females resulted in a significant increase in FSH beta mRNA levels and FSH secretion at 2 and 6 h. There were no significant changes in alpha and LH beta mRNA levels in either males or females. Thus, these in vivo studies have shown that rhInhibin A can inhibit FSH beta mRNA levels and FSH secretion in the adult male rat. RhActivin A stimulates FSH synthesis and secretion in the immature and adult ovariectomized-E2 females, but has little or no effect in immature and adult males. Hence, there is a sexual dimorphic response to rhActivin A in vivo in the rat.