Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) is a potent regulator of cellular differentiation, proliferation, migration, and protein expression. These properties have been exploited to create a variety of bioassays for detecting the mature growth factor. In this paper, we describe a highly sensitive and specific, nonradioactive quantitative bioassay for TGF-beta based on its ability to induce plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) expression. Mink lung epithelial cells (MLEC) were stably transfected with an expression construct containing a truncated PAI-1 promoter fused to the firefly luciferase reporter gene. Addition of TGF-beta (0.2 to > 30 pM) to the transfectants resulted in a dose-dependent increase in luciferase activity in the cell lysates. Although responsive to TGF-beta, this promoter fragment was only minimally influenced by other known inducers of PAI-1 expression. When compared to the widely used MLEC assay, this assay demonstrated greater sensitivity and specificity, allowing quantification of TGF-beta in complex biological solutions.