The ability of transforming growth factor B1 (TGF beta 1) to inhibit proliferation and activate death of rat ventral prostatic glandular cells was tested both in vivo and in vitro. In vivo administration of 50 ng TGF beta 1/day directly to the regressed ventral prostate of previously castrated male rats had no effect on the proliferative regrowth of the prostatic glandular cells induced by exogeneous androgen replacement. In addition, androgen-stimulated ventral prostatic cell proliferation in vitro in organ culture was not affected by exposure to 0.1-20 ng/ml TGF beta 1. In contrast in vivo administration of 50 ng TGF beta 1/day directly to the ventral prostate of intact noncastrated male rats resulted in the death of about 25% of the prostatic glandular cells within 7 days of treatment. Such TGF beta 1 treatment did not lower serum testosterone, nor did it affect the size or DNA content of the seminal vesicles, demonstrating the local nature of the response. Likewise, in androgen-maintained ventral prostate organ cultures in vitro, there was a dose-response relationship between glandular cell death and TGF beta 1 concentration in the medium. These results demonstrate that TGF beta 1 can induce the death of androgen-dependent prostatic glandular cells even when physiological levels of androgen are present. Previous studies have demonstrated that both the receptor and the mRNA for TGF beta 1 increase rapidly in the ventral prostate after castration. Taken with the present data, these results suggest that TGF beta 1 may be a physiological intermediate in the programmed cell death of rat prostatic glandular cells activated after androgen ablation.