The effects of transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) on interferon gamma-mediated killing of the intracellular protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi and on the course of T. cruzi infection in mice were investigated. Spleen cells from mice with acute T. cruzi infections were found to produce elevated levels of biologically active TGF-beta in vitro, and the possibility that TGF-beta may mediate certain aspects of T. cruzi infection was then addressed. When mouse peritoneal macrophages were treated with TGF-beta in vitro, the ability of IFN-gamma to activate intracellular inhibition of the parasite was blocked. This occurred whether cells were treated with TGF-beta either before or after IFN-gamma treatment. TGF-beta treatment also blocked the T. cruzi-inhibiting effects of IGN-gamma on human macrophages. Additionally, treatment of human macrophages with TGF-beta alone led to increased parasite replication in these cells. The effects of TGF-beta on T. cruzi infection in vivo were then investigated. Susceptible C57BL/6 mice developed higher parasitemias and died earlier when treated with TGF-beta during the course of infection. Resistant C57BL/6 x DBA/2 F1 mice treated with TGF-beta also had increased parasitemias, and 50% mortality, compared with no mortality in infected, saline-treated controls. A single dose of TGF-beta, given at the time of infection, was sufficient to significantly decrease resistance to infection in F1 mice and to exacerbate infection in susceptible C57BL/6 mice. Furthermore, a single injection of TGF-beta was sufficient to counter the in vivo protective effects of IFN-gamma. We conclude that TGF-beta, produced during acute T. cruzi infection in mice, is a potent inhibitor of the effects of macrophage activating cytokines in vivo and in vitro and may play a role in regulating infection.