Effects of transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1), either alone or in combination with TNF, on the induction of differentiation of human myelogenous leukemic cell lines were examined. TGF-beta 1 alone induced differentiation of a human monocytic leukemia U-937 line into the cells with macrophage characteristics. When combined with TNF, TGF-beta 1 synergistically or additively induced differentiation associated properties. A human myeloblastic leukemia cell line, ML-1, differently responded to TGF-beta 1 in induction of differentiation. FcR activity and phagocytic activity induced by TNF were suppressed by TGF-beta 1. However, nitroblue tetrazolium reducing activity was synergistically induced by combinations of TGF-beta 1 and TNF. Scatchard analysis of TNF receptors indicated that the number of binding sites and dissociation constant of TNF for its receptors on U-937 or ML-1 cells were not changed by treatment with TGF-beta 1. Although IFN-gamma, IL-6, granulocyte CSF, and granulocyte-macrophage CSF-induced nitroblue tetrazolium reducing activity of U-937 cells, only IFN-gamma, and TNF induced it synergistically in combination with TGF-beta 1. Synergism between TGF-beta 1 and TNF was also observed in inhibition of growth of U-937 and ML-1 cells. Although TGF-beta 1 induction of differentiation of other monocytoid leukemic THP-1 cells was similar to that of U-937 cells, TGF-beta 1 only slightly induced differentiation of promyelocytic leukemic HL-60 cells, either alone or in combination with TNF. Our observations indicate that TGF-beta 1 strongly modulates differentiation and proliferation of human myelogenous leukemia cells, macrophage precursors.