Regulation of the activin-binding protein follistatin (FS) by recombinant human (rh) FSH, prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), and several polypeptide growth factors was examined in cultures of human granulosa-luteal (GL) cells obtained from in-vitro fertilization patients at oocyte retrieval. Northern and dot blot hybridization analyses demonstrated that both rhFSH and PGE2 caused stimulatory effects on FS mRNA levels in a culture stage-, time-, and concentration-dependent manner. An 8-h stimulation with rhFSH (100 ng/ml) significantly increased FS mRNA levels on Days 5 and 7 of culture and PGE2 (10(-6)M) on Days 2, 4, and 7. The stimulatory effect of rhFSH and PGE2 on FS mRNA levels were rapid and transient. Maximal inductions occurred 8 h after stimulation, whereas weak or no stimulatory effects were seen at 24 or 48 h. PGF2 alpha did not affect FS mRNA levels at any time point studied. Treatment of the cells with the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide prior to rhFSH stimulation did not inhibit the rapid induction of FS mRNAs, but it prevented the decline at 24 h. Both rhFSH and PGE2 clearly also increased the levels of secreted FS proteins are detected by immunoprecipitation studies with a specific antibody. The effects of the polypeptide growth factors epidermal growth factor (EGF); transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF beta 1), and activin A on FS mRNA levels were also examined. TGF beta 1 and activin A had no effect on basal FS expression at any concentration or time point studied. An 8-h stimulation with EGF increased FS mRNA levels, but the effect was weaker than those caused by rhFSH and PGE2. We conclude that rhFSH and PGE2 induce FS mRNA and protein in human cultured GL cells. EGF is able to induce FS mRNA to a lesser extent than are rhFSH and PGE2, whereas PGF2 alpha, TGF beta 1, and activin A do not affect basal FS mRNA levels in human cultured GL cells. This study together with our previous report on the stimulatory effect of hCG on FS levels suggest that in the luteal phase of the human menstrual cycle, FS expression in granulosa cells is likely to be positively controlled by luteotropic factors such as gonadotropins and PGE2. Consequently, elevated FS levels may support the survival of the human CL since FS is known to prevent the antisteroidogenic effects of activin in human GL cells.