Expression of transforming growth factor-beta s (TGF-beta s) 1-3 was studied in normal liver and during liver regeneration after partial hepatectomy in the rat to determine whether each of these isoforms might be involved in hepatocyte growth in vivo. Expression of the mRNAs for all three TGF-beta isoforms increases in the regenerating liver. In addition, the levels of expression of the mRNAs for several extracellular matrix proteins, including fibronectin, vitronectin, laminin, and collagen, also increase in the regenerating liver. Immunohistochemical staining analysis shows a similar distribution of all three TGF-beta s in normal and regenerating liver; however, in both tissues, the level of expression of TGF-beta 1 is 8- to 10-fold higher than that of TGF-beta 2 as determined by sandwich enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Expression of all three TGF-beta mRNAs is restricted to liver nonparenchymal cells. Although hepatocytes from normal and regenerating livers do not synthesize TGF-beta, they are sensitive to inhibition of growth by all three TGF-beta isoforms. Hepatocytes from regenerating livers are capable of activating latent TGF-beta 1 complexes in vitro, whereas normal hepatocytes are not. The different TGF-beta isoforms may function in an inhibitory paracrine mechanism that is activated during liver regeneration and may also regulate the synthesis of extracellular matrix components in the regenerating liver.