Activin-A is a member of the transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) superfamily and is expressed by osteoblasts. However, the role of activin-A on osteoblasts is not clearly understood. We examined the effects of activin-A on osteoblast proliferation or differentiation, and mineralization by the osteoblasts in the first subcultures of fetal rat osteoblasts obtained from calvarial bones. Exogenous activin-A led to impaired formation of bone nodules in a dose-dependent manner, although it did not influence cell proliferation using an MTT assay. This inhibitory effect depended upon the time at which activin-A was added to the culture media, and the effect was most significant when addition took place at the early phase of the culture. In addition, exogenous activin-A inhibited gene expression of type I procollagen, alkaline phosphatase, osteonectin, and osteopontin in the cultured cells using Northern blot analysis. The peak of osteocalcin mRNA was delayed. Gene expression for TGF-beta was not influenced by exogenous activin-A. The betaA subunit (activin-A) mRNA was detected during the early phase of this culture. These results indicate that activin-A inhibited early differentiation of the fetal rat calvarial cells, or osteoblasts.