This study examines the potential role of transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) in the regulation of human T lymphocyte proliferation, and proposes that TGF-beta is an important autoregulatory lymphokine that limits T lymphocyte clonal expansion, and that TGF-beta production by T lymphocytes is important in T cell interactions with other cell types. TGF-beta was shown to inhibit IL-2-dependent T cell proliferation. The addition of picograms amounts of TGF-beta to cultures of IL-2-stimulated human T lymphocytes suppressed DNA synthesis by 60-80%. A potential mechanism of this inhibition was found. TGF-beta inhibited IL-2-induced upregulation of the IL-2 and transferrin receptors. Specific high-affinity receptors for TGF-beta were found both on resting and activated T cells. Cellular activation was shown to result in a five- to sixfold increase in the number of TGF-beta receptors on a per cell basis, without a change in the affinity of the receptor. Finally, the observations that activated T cells produce TGF-beta mRNA and that TGF-beta biologic activity is present in supernatants conditioned by activated T cells is strong evidence that T cells themselves are a source of TGF-beta. Resting T cells were found to have low to undetectable levels of TGF-beta mRNA, while PHA activation resulted in a rapid increase in TGF-beta mRNA levels (within 2 h). Both T4 and T8 lymphocytes were found to make mRNA for TGF-beta upon activation. Using both a soft agar assay and a competitive binding assay, TGF-beta biologic activity was found in supernatants conditioned by T cells; T cell activation resulted in a 10-50-fold increase in TGF-beta production. Thus, TGF-beta may be an important antigen-nonspecific regulator of human T cell proliferation, and important in T cell interaction with other cell types whose cellular functions are modulated by TGF-beta.