The anterior chamber of the eye is an immunologically privileged site. Over the past 15 years, numerous laboratories documented that the privileged status of this unique site is mediated by multifactorial immunoregulatory processes. Among the participating factors is the aqueous humor that circulates in the anterior chamber and is in contact with most of the tissues in the anterior segment of the eye. Recently, it was found that normal aqueous humor is a powerful inhibitor of antigen-driven T lymphocyte activation, but it spares other important functional properties of T cells. The spectrum of immune inhibitory properties resembles some of the activities of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta), a polypeptide cytokine. Because of this similarity, the authors tried to determine if TGF-beta is present in aqueous humor and whether this cytokine could account for the lymphocyte inhibitory activity of this biologic fluid. They found TGF-beta in aqueous humor by dot-blot analysis. Using the CCL-64 mink lung epithelial cell bioassay for this compound, TGF-beta bioactivity was shown in aqueous humor from several different species, including human. In rabbit and human aqueous humor, most of the biologic activity was due to TGF-beta 2 (80-90%). Dose-response curves generated by using purified porcine TGF-beta showed that aqueous humor contained sufficient concentrations of TGF-beta to account for the observed inhibition in several assays for T cell activation and proliferation. Partial purification of the lymphocyte inhibitor in rabbit aqueous humor by size exclusion in high-performance liquid chromatography demonstrated that several lymphocyte inhibitory fractions contained TGF-beta bioactivity. Finally, neutralizing antisera to TGF-beta 2 were able to reverse most of the lymphocyte inhibitory activity of aqueous humor. It was concluded that TGF-beta was present in high concentration in normal aqueous humor and that this cytokine contributed to the immunosuppressive properties of aqueous humor.