Colon carcinoma is a multistage disease. Most malignancies arise from pre-existing benign tumors. Multiple chromosomal defects affecting oncogene and tumor suppressor gene function are associated with disease progression. These aberrations result in an imbalance between the normal positive and negative growth effectors, which contribute further to disease progression. We have studied how changes in the expression of TGF alpha and TGF beta affect colon carcinoma cell behavior. Overexpression of the stimulatory factor TGF alpha in a relatively benign cell line with weak TGF alpha autocrine activity converted the cell type to an aggressive, progressed phenotype in vivo and in vitro. In contrast, disruption of TGF alpha expression by constitutive expression of TGF alpha antisense RNA in a progressed cell line with a strong, internalized autocrine loop resulted in the development of clones with decreased tumorigenicity in vitro and in vivo. Suppression of the inhibitory effects of TGF beta by constitutive expression of TGF beta antisense RNA increased the tumorigenicity of the cell lines in vitro and in vivo. None of these alterations in TGF alpha or TGF beta expression affected the doubling time of the cells. The changes in tumorigenicity were due to effects on the lag phase of growth. We conclude that TGF beta functions to maintain the cells in a quiescent state while TGF alpha drives reentry into the cell cycle. We have identified a unique cis-element that mediates TGF alpha autoregulation. The transcription factor binding this element is also involved in the cell-cycle regulation of TGF alpha expression. We hypothesize that this factor may be a convergent point TGF alpha and TGF beta interact in controlling movement into and out of quiescence.