Recent studies have indicated that activin A/erythroid differentiation factor is a physiologic hematopoietic growth and differentiation factor mainly for cells of the erythroid lineage. We studied the expression of the two type II activin receptor mRNAs during the differentiation of K562 erythroleukemic cells, which are known to be induced toward the erythroid lineage in response to activin or toward the megakaryoblastic lineage by phorbol myristate acetate (PMA). The cDNA of the human activin receptor type IIB (hActR-IIB) was cloned and sequenced from two RNA sources, the K562 cells and the human fetal brain, which is, of the tissues screened by Northern blot analysis, the most abundant source of ActR-IIB RNA. The cDNA encodes a predicted 512 amino acid protein containing an extracellular ligand binding domain, a hydrophobic transmembrane domain, and an intracellular serine/threonine kinase domain. The amino acid sequence is 99.2% and 98.4% homologous in the coding region to the previously described mouse and rat ActR-IIB2s, respectively, and 69% identical to the other human activin serine/threonine kinase receptor, hActR-II. The alternative splicing events in the juxtamembrane region previously reported for the respective mouse receptor were not observed during the processing of K562 cell and human fetal brain RNA. Northern analysis showed that the 10- and 2.5-kb transcripts of hActR-IIB are more abundantly expressed than the 6.0- and 3.0-kb transcripts of hActR-II in K562 cells. No changes in the steady-state levels of hActR-II and IIB mRNAs were detected upon differentiation of K562 cells by activin A or by PMA. Similarly, the receptor mRNA levels remained constant in HL-60 cells induced to either monocyte/macrophage or granulocyte-like cells by PMA or dimethyl sulfoxide, respectively. Thus, the mRNA expression levels of both receptors apparently do not correlate with the differentiation status of these cells.