Transforming growth factors-beta (TGF-beta) are fibrogenic factors that have been strongly implicated in the development of diabetic nephropathy. Our aim was to use two animal models [the streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetic rat and the genetically prone biobreeding (BB) rat] to fully characterize the responses of the renal TGF-beta system in both short- and long-term diabetes. In this study changes in the entire renal TGF-beta system, at both protein and messenger RNA (mRNA) levels, have been characterized using the techniques of immunocytochemistry, Western blotting, and ribonuclease protection assay. We also used Western blotting of pro-collagen-I C-peptide to demonstrate that the rate of fibrogenesis was highest over the first 2 weeks of diabetes. TGF-beta1, TGF-beta2, and receptor mRNA and protein were detected in the control nondiabetic kidney. It was found that dramatic and dynamic changes occur in all parts of the renal TGF-beta axis in both models of experimental diabetes, but TGF-beta2 and TGF-betaRII proteins were the predominant responsive element, particularly during the acute phase of disease. For example, during the acute phase of disease (0-30 days), although renal TGF-beta1 mRNA levels were elevated, no increases in the corresponding protein were detected in the kidney. By contrast, in the absence of changes in TGF-beta2 mRNA levels, twice as much TGF-beta2 protein was measured in the kidney by day 30 of STZ-induced diabetes compared with day 0 controls analyzed by Western blotting (P < 0.05), and the protein was localized both to the nuclei and cytoplasm of glomerular cells, analyzed by immunocytochemistry. In addition, three times as much TGF-betaRII protein was found by day 90 of STZ-induced diabetes compared with day 0 controls, making this the most responsive receptor type. These results suggest that the entire TGF-beta axis has a role in the etiology of kidney fibrosis and could be manipulated therapeutically to preserve kidney function.