Mononuclear cells in synovial fluids (SF) from patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other arthropathies are characterized by functional and phenotypic changes, including impaired mitogen responsiveness and inverted ratios of CD4+/CD8+ T lymphocytes. This is related to previously described activities in synovial fluids that inhibit proliferation of lymphocytes induced by mitogens and cytokines. The present study examines the relationship of these activities and transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta), which is now known as the most potent endogenous inhibitor of lymphocyte function. It is shown that most of the activity in SF that inhibits IL-1-induced thymocyte or T cell proliferation is neutralized by a specific antibody to TGF-beta. Analysis of the SF in the CCL64 assay, a standard test for TGF-beta, showed a close correlation between the levels of immunosuppressive activity and TGF-beta. SF contain spontaneously active inhibitors of T cell function and this is caused by the presence of active TGF-beta. Higher titers are found after transient acidification, which is known to activate the latent form of TGF-beta. Characterization of the TGF-beta isoforms showed that most of the material in SF is TGF-beta 2. Analysis of TGF-beta effects on T cell subsets demonstrated that it completely inhibits proliferation of CD4+ cells whereas at the same concentrations of purified or rTGF-beta CD8+ cells are only inhibited by maximally 31.1%. SF also preferentially inhibit CD4+ Th cell proliferation and this effect is neutralized by antibody to TGF-beta. Collectively these results indicate that the presence of TGF-beta accounts for most of the immunosuppressive activities in SF and that this factor may be responsible for functional and phenotypic changes of SF lymphocytes.