Cell adhesion to extracellular matrices is mediated by a set of heterodimeric cell surface receptors called integrins that might be the subject of regulation by growth and differentiation factors. We have examined the effect of transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) on the expression of the very late antigens or alpha beta 1 group of integrins in human cell lines. The six known members of this family share a common beta 1 subunit but have distinct alpha subunits that confer selective affinity toward type I collagen, fibronectin, laminin, and other as yet unknown cell adhesion proteins. Using a panel of specific antibodies and cDNA probes, we show that in WI-38 lung fibroblasts TGF-beta 1 elevates concomitantly the expression of alpha 1, alpha 2, alpha 3, alpha 5, and beta 1 integrin subunits at the protein and/or mRNA level, their assembly into the corresponding alpha beta 1 complexes, and their exposure on the cell surface. The rate of synthesis of total alpha subunits relative to beta 1 subunit is higher in TGF-beta 1-treated cells than in control cells. The characteristically slow (t1/2 approximately 10 h) rate of beta 1 conversion from precursor form to mature glycoprotein in untreated cells increases markedly (to t1/2 approximately 3 h) in response to TGF-beta 1. The results suggest that in WI-38 fibroblasts the beta 1 subunit is synthesized in excess over alpha subunits, and assembly of beta 1 subunits with rate-limiting alpha subunits is required for transit through the Golgi and exposure of alpha beta 1 complex on the cell surface. TGF-beta 1 does not induce the synthesis of integrin subunits that are not expressed in unstimulated cells, such as alpha 4 and alpha 6 subunits in WI-38 fibroblasts. However, alpha 4 and alpha 6 subunits can be regulated by TGF-beta in those cells that express them. The results suggest that TGF-beta regulates the expression of individual integrin subunits by parallel but independent mechanisms. By modifying the balance of individual alpha beta 1 integrins, TGF-beta 1 might modulate those aspects of cell migration, positioning, and development that are guided by adhesion to extracellular matrices.