Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF beta) is capable of regulating the proliferation and phenotypic expression of growth plate chondrocytes in culture. Chondrocytes were isolated from the growth plates from the long bones of 3- to 5-week-old chicks. Conditioned medium was harvested from short term monolayer cultures for the assay of TGF beta production by these cells. A receptor competition assay using [125I]TGF beta was used to quantitate the amount of TGF beta in the conditioned medium. Acid-activated conditioned medium contained 5.0 +/- 0.4 ng/ml TGF beta, while conditioned medium that had not been exposed to acid had undetectable levels of the peptide by this assay. The initial cell plating density was inversely related to the amount of TGF beta produced on a per cell basis. Growth plate chondrocytes separated by countercurrent centrifugal elutriation into maturationally distinct subpopulations had different rates of TGF beta production; hypertropic chondrocytes produced significantly more TGF beta (4.5 ng/10(6) cells) than the smallest chondrocytes isolated (2.3 ng/10(6) cells). A variety of other growth mediators were tested for their ability to influence TGF beta production by chondrocytes, and it was found that only basic fibroblast growth factor could significantly influence TGF beta production, producing a 6-fold increase in TGF beta recovered in the conditioned medium. The production of TGF beta by growth plate chondrocytes implicates it as an important autocrine or paracrine regulator in the process of endochondral calcification.