Transforming growth factor-beta are cytokines with a wide range of biological effects. They play a pathologic role in inflammatory and fibrosing diseases such as nephrosclerosis. TGF-beta s are secreted in a latent form due to noncovalent association with latency associated peptide (LAP), which is a homodimer formed from the propeptide region of TGF-beta. LAP is disulfide linked to another protein, latent TGF-beta binding protein (LTBP). LTBP has features in common with extracellular matrix proteins, and targets latent TGF-beta to the matrix. Activation of latent TGF-beta can be accomplished in vitro by denaturing treatments, plasmin digestion, ionizing radiation and interaction with thrombospondin. The mechanisms by which latent TGF-beta is activated physiologically are not well understood. Results to date suggest an important role for proteases, particularly plasmin, although other mechanisms probably exist. A general model of activation is proposed in which latent TGF-beta is released from the extracellular matrix by proteases, localized to cell surfaces, and activated by cell-associated plasmin.