European eels are blocked at a prepubertal silver stage due to a deficient production of pituitary gonadotropins. We investigated the potential role of activin/follistatin system in the control of eel gonadotropins. Through the development of qPCR assays for European eel activin β(B) and follistatin, we first analyzed the tissue distribution of the expression of these two genes. Both activin β(B) and follistatin are expressed in the brain, pituitary and gonads. In addition, a striking expression of both transcripts was also found in the retina and in adipose tissue. The effects of recombinant human activins and follistatin on eel gonadotropin gene expression were studied using primary cultures of eel pituitary cells. Activins A and B strongly stimulated FSHβ subunit expression in a time- and dose-dependent manner. In contrast, activin reduced LHβ expression, an inhibitory effect which was highlighted in the presence of testosterone, a known activator of eel LHβ expression. No effect of activin was observed on other pituitary hormones. Follistatin antagonized both the stimulatory and inhibitory effects of activin on FSHβ and LHβ expression, respectively. Activin is the first major stimulator of FSH expression evidenced in the eel. These results in a basal teleost further support the ancient origin and strong conservation of the activin/follistatin system in the control of FSH in vertebrates. In contrast, the opposite regulation of FSH and LH may have emerged in the teleost lineage.
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