Activins and other ligands in the TGFbeta superfamily signal through a heteromeric complex of receptors. Disruption of signaling by a truncated type II activin receptor, XActRIIB (previously called XAR1), blocks mesoderm induction and promotes neuralization in Xenopus embryos. We report the cloning and characterization of a type I activin receptor, XALK4. Like truncated XActRIIB, a truncated mutant (tXALK4) blocks mesoderm formation both in vitro and in vivo; moreover, an active form of the receptor induces mesoderm in a ligand-independent manner. Unlike truncated XActRIIB, however, tXALK4 does not induce neural tissue. This difference is explained by the finding that tXALK4 does not block BMP4-mediated epidermal specification, while truncated XActRIIB inhibits all BMP4 responses in embryonic explants. Thus, the type I and type II activin receptors are involved in overlapping but distinct sets of embryonic signaling events.

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