Transforming growth factor beta (TGF beta) is a family of important regulators of chondrocyte growth and differentiation. Although TGF beta has been detected in cartilage, the TGF beta isoforms expressed by chondrocytes and their regulation by growth factors are unknown. This study shows that human articular chondrocytes release TGF beta activity. Chondrocyte conditioned media contains active TGF beta and larger quantities in latent form. By neutralization with specific antibodies it is shown that all three isoforms (TGF beta 1, TGF beta 2, and TGF beta 3) are secreted by chondrocytes. Analysis of the inducers of TGF beta gene expression demonstrates complex regulation of TGF beta production by growth factors. Basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) stimulates the release of TGF beta activity but has no effect on steady state TGF beta mRNA levels while platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) upregulates TGF beta 1 and TGF beta 3 mRNAs with a corresponding increase in protein secretion. The three TGF beta isoforms themselves differentially affect gene expression. While TGF beta 1 and TGF beta 2 show autoinduction, TGF beta 3 upregulates TGF beta 1 but does not affect TGF beta 2 mRNA levels. These results demonstrate that human articular chondrocytes produce all three TGF beta isoforms. Induction of TGF beta expression is differentially regulated by various growth factors and occurs at the mRNA level and/or posttranscriptionally. Chondrocyte expression and the differential regulation of TGF beta 1, TGF beta 2, and TGF beta 3 by growth factors suggest that all three isoforms of TGF beta are part of the network of cartilage regulatory factors.