Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) is a family of polypeptide growth factors with multiple functional activities. Recent studies suggest that TGF-beta is a selective inhibitor of hematopoietic cells. In this report, we study the effect of TGF-beta 1 on the proliferation of murine peritoneal exudate macrophages (PEM) in response to purified murine recombinant granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (rMuGM-CSF) and human recombinant M-CSF (rHuM-CSF). In mice, PEM and other types of tissue macrophages display multiple types of receptors for CSFs and respond to them, either alone or in combination, to undergo extensive proliferation in vitro. Recombinant human TGF-beta 1 (rHuTGF-beta 1) (0.1 to 1.0 ng/mL) markedly enhanced the growth of PEM in response to rMuGM-CSF but inhibited their responsiveness to rHuM- CSF. Similar effects of rHuTGF-beta 1 were also detected using murine pulmonary alveolar macrophages (PAM) and bone marrow-derived macrophages (BMDM). Receptor binding assays using iodinated rMuGM-CSF and rHuM-CSF showed that rHuTGF-beta 1 treatment greatly enhanced the expression of GM-CSF receptors in PEM, in a time- and dose-dependent manner, suggesting a possible mechanism for the synergistic effect of TGF-beta 1. On the other hand, the expression of M-CSF receptors was not affected by TGF-beta 1 treatment. Analysis by mRNA PCR showed that the synergistic effect of TGF-beta 1 is not due to autocrine CSFs produced by treated cells. Our results suggest that TGF-beta 1 is an important regulator of macrophage proliferation. Depending on the types of CSFs present, TGF-beta 1 may act either as a growth promoter or inhibitor.