Radioiodinated transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) bound to the plasma proteinase inhibitor, alpha 2-macroglobulin (alpha 2M), as determined by chromatography on Superose-6 and native polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. When alpha 2M conformational change was induced with methylamine, 125I-TGF-beta 1 binding significantly increased. Intravenously injected 125I-TGF-beta 1 cleared from the circulation of mice rapidly at first; however, intravascular radioactivity stabilized near 20% of the initial level. At necropsy, radioactivity was recovered predominantly in the liver (65%); however, the density of radioactivity (disintegrations per minute/g organ wt) was highest in the lungs. Markedly different results were obtained with purified 125I-TGF-beta 1-alpha 2M-methylamine complex. Clearance of the complex occurred as a first-order process with a t1/2 of 4 min. Greater than 90% of the radioactivity was recovered in the liver. The clearance and distribution of 125I-TGF-beta 1-alpha 2M-methylamine were equivalent to those observed with 125I-alpha 2M-methylamine and 125I-alpha 2M-trypsin. The latter two radioligands clear via specific alpha 2M receptors in the liver. Large molar excesses of alpha 2M-trypsin or alpha 2M-methylamine competed with 125I-TGF-beta 1-alpha 2M-methylamine for plasma clearance. Native alpha 2M, which does not bind to the alpha 2M receptor, did not compete. The receptor binding domain of alpha 2M-methylamine was blocked by chemical modification or enzyme treatment. The resulting alpha 2M preparations still bound 125I-TGF-beta 1; however, the complexes did not clear when injected intravenously in mice. The studies presented here demonstrate that alpha 2M can mediate the plasma clearance of a growth factor via the alpha 2M receptor system. We propose that alpha 2M, the alpha 2M receptor, and proteinases may function as a concerted system to regulate TGF-beta 1 activity and the activity of related factors in vivo.