The vertebrate ventral midbrain contains 3-4 x 10(4) dopaminergic neurons that influence motor activity, emotional behavior, and cognition. Recently, glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) was shown to be a potent survival factor for these dopaminergic neurons in culture. However, many midbrain dopaminergic neurons project to targets that do not express GDNF. We report here that transforming growth factors (TGFs) TGF beta 2 and TGF beta 3, which are distantly related to GDNF, also prevent the death of cultured rat embryonic midbrain dopaminergic neurons at picomolar concentrations. Furthermore, we find that TGF beta 2, TGF beta 3, and GDNF are expressed sequentially as local and target-derived trophic factors and that subpopulations of dopaminergic neurons projecting to distinct targets have access to only one of these factors. These findings are consistent with the idea that GDNF, TGF beta 2, and TGF beta 3 are physiological survival factors for developing midbrain dopaminergic neurons and may have applications as therapeutics for Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder of dopaminergic neurons.