We present evidence for unique localization and specific biological activities for transforming growth factor-beta s (TGF-beta s) 2 and 3, as compared to TGF-beta 1, in the nervous system of the 12-18 day mouse embryo. Each TGF-beta isoform was localized immunohistochemically by specific antibodies raised to peptides corresponding to unique sequences in the respective TGF-beta proteins. Staining for TGF-beta 1 was principally in the meninges, while TGF-beta s 2 and 3 co-localized in neuronal perikarya and axons, as well as in radial glial cells. In the central nervous system, staining was most prominent in zones where neuronal differentiation occurs and less intense in zones of active proliferation, while in the peripheral nervous system, many nerve fibers as well as their cell bodies were strongly immunoreactive for TGF-beta s 2 and 3. Functionally, we have also found that in the presence of an extract of chick eye tissue, TGF-beta s 2 and 3 inhibit survival of cultured embryonic chick ciliary ganglionic neurons in a dose-dependent fashion; TGF-beta 1 shows no inhibitory effects. Our data suggest that TGF-beta s 2 and 3 may play a role in regulation of neuronal migration and differentiation, as well as in glial cell proliferation and differentiation.