Previous studies have demonstrated mitogenic effects of several mediators on mesothelial cells in vitro, but their effects in vivo have not been investigated. The aim of this study was to examine the effects of various cytokines on normal mesothelial cell proliferation in vitro and in vivo and correlate the findings in both assay systems. In vitro proliferation was assessed using a technique based on the uptake and subsequent release of methylene blue. Autoradiographic methods were applied in a murine model to assess mitogenic activity of these factors on mesothelium in vivo. In vitro data demonstrated a dose-dependent increase in human mesothelial cell proliferation by all mediators examined: at optimal concentrations, proliferation was enhanced between 26.53 +/- 3.77% standard deviation (SD), p < 0.001 for fibroblast growth factor-2 (FGF-2) and 114.58 +/- 6.97%, p < 0.001 for platelet-derived growth factor-AB (PDGF-AB) above control medium. In vivo, DNA synthesis in mesothelial cells was stimulated by FGF-2 (29.52 +/- 5.85% labeled cells, compared with 7.04 +/- 4.36% for control medium; p < 0.001), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha; 13.14 +/- 4.55% compared with 7.23 +/- 2.85; p < 0.005) and PDGF-BB (11.53 +/- 4.74% compared with 4.67 +/- 3.48%; p < 0.005). Transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1) and epidermal growth factor (EGF) had no effect on DNA synthesis in mesothelial cells in vivo. It is concluded that FGF2, TNF-alpha, and PDGF stimulate mesothelial cell proliferation in vitro and in vivo, whereas TGF-beta1 and EGF only had a mitogenic effect in vitro at the concentrations examined. The mitogenic potency of the different PDGF isoforms in vitro was consistent with PDGF-alpha and beta receptor expression.