Conditions associated with hypertrophy of the urinary bladder have repeatedly been associated with an increased urinary excretion of transforming growth factor (TGF) beta in both rats and patients. Because TGFbeta can have both growth-promoting and -inhibiting effects, we have studied its effects on cell growth and death in primary cultures of rat bladder smooth muscle cells. TGFbeta1, TGFbeta2, or TGFbeta3 did not cause apoptosis, but all three isoforms inhibited DNA synthesis with similar potency (EC(50) of approximately 0.1 ng/ml) and efficacy. Such inhibition was antagonized by a specific TGFbeta receptor antagonist and independent of the presence of serum. Mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) are involved in the control of cell growth, and all three TGFbeta isoforms inhibited activation of the extracellular signal-regulated kinase, c-Jun NH(2)-terminal kinase, and p38 MAPK subfamilies. Nevertheless, the inhibitory effects of the TGFbeta isoforms on DNA synthesis were not affected by presence of inhibitors of the three MAPK pathways. TGFbeta did not alter cell size as measured by flow cytometry or mitochondrial activity, an integrated measure of cell size and number. We conclude that our data do not support the hypothesis that TGFbeta is a mediator of rat bladder hypertrophy.