Active exogenous transforming growth factor-beta s (TGF-beta s) are potent modulators of extracellular matrix synthesis in cell culture and stimulate matrix synthesis in wounds and other remodeling tissues. The role of endogenous TGF-beta s in remodeling tissues is less well defined. Vascular remodeling in the pulmonary arteries of patients with primary pulmonary hypertension is characterized, in part, by abnormal deposition of immunohistochemically detectable procollagen, thereby identifying actively remodeling vessels. We used this marker of active matrix synthesis to begin defining the in vivo role of TGF-beta in the complex milieu of actively remodeling tissues. Immunohistochemistry using isoform-specific anti-TGF-beta antibodies was performed to determine whether TGF-beta was present in actively remodeling hypertensive pulmonary arteries 20 to 500 microns in diameter. Intense, cell-associated TGF-beta 3 immunoreactivity was observed in the media and neointima of these hypertensive muscular arteries. Immunostaining was present, but less intense, in normal arteries of comparable size. TGF-beta 2 immunoreactivity was observed in normal vessels and was increased slightly in hypertensive vessels, in a pattern resembling TGF-beta 3 immunoreactivity. No staining was associated with the adventitia. TGF-beta 1 immunostaining was either faint or absent in both normal and hypertensive vessels. Comparison of procollagen and TGF-beta localization demonstrated that TGF-beta 2 and TGF-beta 3 colocalized at all sites of procollagen synthesis. However, TGF-beta was observed in vessels, or vascular compartments, where there was no procollagen synthesis. Procollagen immunoreactivity was not present in normal vessels that showed immunoreactivity for TGF-beta 2 and TGF-beta 3. These observations suggest: a) the stimulation of procollagen synthesis by TGF-beta in vivo is more complex than suggested by in vitro studies and b) a potential role for TGF-beta 2 or TGF-beta 3, but not TGF-beta 1, in hypertensive pulmonary vascular remodeling.