The biological activity of the transforming growth factor-beta's (TGF-beta) is tightly controlled by their persistance in the extracellular compartment as latent complexes. Each of the three mammalian isoform genes encodes a product that is cleaved intracellularly to form two polypeptides, each of which dimerizes. Mature TGF-beta, a 24 kD homodimer, is noncovalently associated with the 80 kD latency-associated peptide (LAP). LAP is a fundamental component of TGF-beta that is required for its efficient secretion, prevents it from binding to ubiquitous cell surface receptors, and maintains its availability in a large extracellular reservoir that is readily accessed by activation. This latent TGF-beta complex (LTGF-beta) is secreted by all cells and is abundant both in circulating forms and bound to the extracellular matrix. Activation describes the collective events leading to the release of TGF-beta. Despite the importance of TGF-beta regulation of growth and differentiation in physiological and malignant tissue processes, remarkably little is known about the mechanisms of activation in situ. Recent studies of irradiated mammary gland reveal certain features of TGF-beta 1 activation that may shed light on its regulation and potential roles in the normal and neoplastic mammary gland.