We have previously demonstrated that activin is likely an ovarian mediator of pituitary gonadotropin(s) and local epidermal growth factor in their stimulating oocyte maturation and maturational competence in the zebrafish. However, the downstream events controlled by activin remain unknown. One possible mechanism is that activin may directly work on the oocytes to promote the development of oocyte maturational competence. To substantiate this hypothesis, we performed the present study to demonstrate the expression of the activin system in different compartments of zebrafish follicles, namely, the follicle cells and oocytes. The proteins examined include activin subunits (βA and βB), activin-binding protein (follistatin), activin type II receptors (type IIA and IIB), the type I activin receptor-like kinases (ALK1-like, ALK2-like, and ALK4-like), and the intracellular activin signaling molecules (Smad2, Smad3, Smad4, and Smad7). The results showed that the entire activin signaling system is expressed by the full-grown immature zebrafish oocytes (∼0.65 mm in diameter), including ALK4-like (ActRIB), ALK2-like (ActRIA), ActRIIA, ActRIIB, Smad2, Smad3, Smad4, and Smad7, therefore supporting our hypothesis that the oocytes are one of the direct targets of activin actions in the zebrafish ovary. In contrast, activin itself (βA and βB) and ALK1-like type I receptor are predominantly expressed in the follicle cells surrounding the oocytes. Interestingly, although follistatin is expressed in both the follicle cells and oocytes, its level of expression is significantly higher in the oocytes than the follicle cells, implying that follistatin may serve as a signal from the oocytes to modulate the activity of activin produced by the follicle cells. Taken together, the present study provides convincing evidence that although all members of the activin system are expressed in the whole follicle, they exhibit distinct spatial patterns of expression among different compartments of the follicle. It is likely that activin works directly on the oocytes in a paracrine manner to promote oocyte maturation and maturational competence. On the other hand, instead of being controlled passively by the follicle cells, the oocytes may actively participate in the regulation of follicle development by releasing various modulating molecules such as follistatin.
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