The activin and inhibin protein complexes are both dimeric in structure, and, in each complex, the two monomers are linked to one another by a single disulfide bond. In addition, both complexes are derived from the same family of related genes and proteins but differ in their subunit composition. Below is a list of the most common inhibin and activin complexes and their subunit composition:
Schematic diagram of the 1D structures of inhibin and activin. The black line between the monomers represents a disulfide bond.
The alpha and beta subunits share approximately 25% sequence similarity, whereas the similarity between beta subunits is approximately 65%.
In mammals, four beta subunits have been described, called activin βA, activin βB, activin βC and activin βE. Activin βA and βB are identical to the two beta subunits of inhibin. A fifth subunit, activin βD, has been described in Xenopus laevis. Two activin βA subunits give rise to activin A, one βA, and one βB subunit gives rise to activin AB, and so on. Various, but not all theoretically possible, heterodimers have been described. The subunits are linked by a single covalent disulfide bond.
The βC subunit is able to form activin heterodimers with βA or βB subunits but is unable to dimerize with inhibin α.
Activin binds to the Type II receptor and initiates a cascade reaction that leads to the recruitment, phosphorylation, and activation of Type I activin receptor. This then interacts with and then phosphorylates SMAD2 and SMAD3, two of the cytoplasmic SMAD proteins.
Smad3 then translocates to the nucleus and interacts with SMAD4 through multimerization, resulting in their modulation as transcription factor complexes responsible for the expression of a large variety of genes.
In contrast to activin, much less is known about the mechanism of action of inhibin, but may involve competing with activin for binding to activin receptors and/or binding to inhibin-specific receptors.
A mutation in the gene for the activin receptor ACVR1 results in fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a fatal disease that causes muscle and soft tissue to gradually be replaced by bone tissue. This condition is characterized by the formation of an extra skeleton that produces immobilization and eventually death by suffocation. The mutation in ACVR1 causes activin A, which normally acts as an antagonist of the receptor and blocks osteogenesis (bone growth), to behave as an agonist of the receptor and to induce hyperactive bone growth. On 2 September 2015, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals announced that they had developed an antibody for activin A that effectively cures the disease in an animal model of the condition.
Quantification of inhibin A is part of the prenatal quad screen that can be administered during pregnancy at a gestational age of 16–18 weeks. An elevated inhibin A (along with an increased beta-hCG, decreased AFP, and a decreased estriol) is suggestive of the presence of a fetus with Down syndrome. As a screening test, abnormal quad screen test results need to be followed up with more definitive tests.
Inhibin B may be used as a marker of spermatogenesis function and male infertility. The mean serum inhibin B level is significantly higher among fertile men (approximately 140 pg/mL) than in infertile men (approximately 80 pg/mL). In men with azoospermia, a positive test for inhibin B slightly raises the chances for successfully achieving pregnancy through testicular sperm extraction (TESE), although the association is not very substantial, having a sensitivity of 0.65 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.56–0.74) and a specificity of 0.83 (CI: 0.64–0.93) for prediction the presence of sperm in the testes in non-obstructive azoospermia.
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