The effects of epidermal growth factor transforming growth factor beta (TGF beta) and other growth factors on the proliferation and differentiation of a cell line derived from rat intestinal crypt epithelium (IEC-6) were defined. Incorporation of [3H]-thymidine was stimulated 1.4-2.4 fold by insulin, insulin like growth factor (IGF), platelet derived growth factor (PDGF), epidermal growth factor (EGF) and 2% fetal calf serum (FCS) respectively. Additive stimulation was observed when FCS was supplemented by insulin,IGF-I or PDGF but not EGF. Incorporation of [3H]-thymidine by IEC-6 was strongly inhibited by TGF beta with greater than 80% inhibition of incorporation at concentration approximately equal to 2.0 pM. IEC-6 cells bound 4.1 +/- 0.15 X 10(4) molecules TGF beta/cell and appeared to have only a single class of high affinity receptors (Kd approximately equal to 0.5 pM). TGF beta inhibition was unaffected by the presence of insulin or IGF-I suggesting it inhibits proliferation at a step subsequent to that at which these growth factors stimulate [3H]-thymidine incorporation. TGF beta also reduced the stimulation induced by FCS by 65%. In contrast EGF reduced TGF beta inhibition by 60%. IEC-6 cells demonstrated the appearance of sucrase activity after greater than 18 hours treatment with TGF beta. These findings suggest that TGF beta may inhibit proliferative activity and promote the development of differentiated function in intestinal epithelial cells.