TGF-beta 1, implanted into growing mouse mammary glands, was previously shown to inhibit ductal growth in an apparently normal and fully reversible manner. In this report we extend these findings to show that TGF-beta 1 inhibition is highly specific. In pregnant or hormone-treated mice, doses of TGF-beta 1 that were capable of fully inhibiting ductal elongation had little effect on the proliferation of lobuloalveolar structures. Additionally, the inhibitory action of TGF-beta 1 on ducts is epithelium-specific, resulting in cessation of DNA synthesis in the rapidly proliferating epithelium of mammary end buds, but does not inhibit DNA synthesis in the stroma surrounding the end buds. At the cellular level, transplant studies showed that TGF-beta 1 inhibited the regeneration of mammary ductal cells when implanted into mammary gland-free fat pads by suppressing the formation of new end buds, without inhibiting maintenance DNA synthesis in ductal lumenal epithelium; this observation indicates the potential of TGF-beta 1 to maintain patterning by suppressing adventitious lateral branching. The time-course of TGF-beta 1 inhibition of end buds was rapid, with cessation of DNA synthesis by 12 hr, followed by loss of the stem cell (cap cell) layer. The question of glandular exposure to TGF-beta 1 administered in EVAc implants was also investigated. Incorporation of TGF-beta 1 into EVAc was found not to degrade the hormone, while the release kinetics of the ligand from implants, its retention in the gland, and the demonstrable zone of exposure were consistent with observed inhibitory effects. These results support the hypothesis that TGF-beta 1 is a natural regulator of mammary ductal growth.