The human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) protein Tat binds to cell surface antigens and can regulate cellular responses. Tat has similar immunosuppressive effects as transforming growth factor-beta (TGF beta) and both inhibit lymphocyte proliferation. TGF beta is expressed by primary human articular chondrocytes and is their most potent growth factor. The present study analyzed the interactions of TGF beta and HIV Tat in the regulation of human articular chondrocytes. Synthetic or recombinant full-length Tat (1-86) induced chondrocyte proliferation and this was of similar magnitude as the response to TGF beta. Tat peptides that did not contain the RGD motif had similar chondrocyte stimulatory activity as full-length Tat. Among a series of Tat peptides, peptide 38-62 which contains the basic domain was the only one active, suggesting that this region is responsible for the effects on chondrocyte proliferation. Full-length Tat and peptide 38-62 synergized with TGF beta and induced proliferative responses that were greater than those obtained with any combination of the known chondrocyte growth factors. Further characterization of the interactions between Tat and TGF beta showed that Tat increased synthesis and TGF beta activity and TGF beta 1 mRNA levels. The stimulatory effects of Tat and peptide 38-62 on chondrocyte proliferation were reduced by neutralizing antibodies to TGF beta and by TGF beta antisense oligonucleotides. These results identify a virally encoded protein and a synthetic peptide derived from it as novel and potent chondrocyte growth stimuli which act at least in part through the induction of TGF beta.