The interaction of transforming growth factor beta (TGF beta) with extracellular matrix macromolecules was examined by using radiolabeled TGF beta and various matrix macromolecules immobilized on nitrocellulose. TGF beta bound to collagen IV with greater affinity than to other extracellular matrix macromolecules tested. Neither laminin nor fibronectin, both of which bind type IV collagen, interfered with the binding of TGF beta to type IV collagen. TGF beta 2 competed effectively with TGF beta 1 for binding to type IV collagen. The biological effect of TGF beta was tested by an assay based on inhibition of proliferation of an osteoblast cell line, MC3T3-E1. The results demonstrated that the effect of TGF beta 1 was sustained when cells were grown on type IV collagen compared to cells grown on laminin, collagen type I, and plastic. These results demonstrate that extracellular matrix components may function as an affinity matrix for binding and immobilizing soluble growth and differentiation factors. In view of the demonstrated role of basement membranes in development the present results imply an important function for transforming growth factor beta bound to collagen IV in local regulation of cell proliferation and differentiation.