Transforming growth factor beta (TGF beta) is a multifunctional polypeptide that regulates proliferation, differentiation, and other functions of many cell types. The pathway of TGF beta signal transduction in cells is unknown. We report here that an early effect of TGF beta is an enhancement of the expression of two genes encoding serum- and phorbol ester tumor promoter-regulated transcription factors: the junB gene and the c-jun proto-oncogene, respectively. This stimulation was observed in human lung adenocarcinoma A549 cells which were growth inhibited by TGF beta, AKR-2B mouse embryo fibroblasts which were growth stimulated by TGF beta, and K562 human erythroleukemia cells, which were not appreciably affected in their growth by TGF beta. The increase in jun mRNA occurred with picomolar TGF beta concentrations within 1 h of TGF beta stimulation, reached a peak between 1 and 5 h in different cells, and declined gradually to base-line levels. This mRNA response was followed by a large increase in the biosynthesis of the c-jun protein (AP-1), as shown by metabolic labeling and immunoprecipitation analysis. However, differential and cell type-specific regulation appeared to determine the timing and magnitude of the response of each jun gene in a given cell. In AKR-2B and NIH 3T3 cells, only junB was induced by TGF beta, evidently in a protein synthesis-independent fashion. The junB response to TGF beta was maintained in c-Ha-ras and neu oncogene-transformed cells. Thus, one of the earliest genomic responses to TGF beta may involve nuclear signal transduction and amplification by the junB and c-jun transcription factors in concert with c-fos, which is also induced. The differential activation of the jun genes may explain some of the pleiotropic effects of TGF beta.