Activins are involved in the regulation of multiple biological events, ranging from early development to pituitary function. To characterize the cellular mechanisms involved in these processes, cDNAs coding for an activin receptor were cloned from AtT20 mouse corticotropic cells by screening COS cell transfectants for binding of 125I-activin A. The cDNAs code for a protein of 494 amino acids comprising a ligand-binding extracellular domain, a single membrane-spanning domain, and an intracellular kinase domain with predicted serine/threonine specificity. 125I-activin A binds to transfected COS cells with an affinity of 180 pM and can be competed by activin A, activin B, and inhibin A, but not by transforming growth factor beta 1. The kinase domain, but not the extracellular sequence, of the activin receptor is most closely related to the C. elegans daf-1 gene product, a putative transmembrane serine/threonine-specific protein kinase for which the ligand is not known.