The contribution of exogenous and endogenous TGF-beta 1 to human peripheral blood NK cell proliferation and activity in vitro was investigated. Exogenous bioactive TGF-beta 1 inhibited NK cell DNA synthesis and production of IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha, and granulocyte-macrophage CSF (GM-CSF) by NK cultures consisting of > 98% CD56+ cells. The cytotoxic activity of NK cells was also weakly inhibited by exogenous TGF-beta 1. All TGF-beta 1-induced inhibitory effects occurred in the absence and presence of the NK cell-activating cytokines IFN-alpha, IL-2, and IL-12. Unstimulated NK cell cultures expressed steady state TGF-beta 1 mRNA detected by Northern blot analysis and produced TGF-beta protein (1.6 ng/ml), as determined by ELISA. When NK cell proliferation was induced by IL-2, IL-12, IFN-alpha, or a combination of IL-2 and IL-12, expression of TGF-beta 1 mRNA and protein was moderately and consistently reduced by approximately 20%, as compared with unstimulated control cultures. Unstimulated and rapidly proliferating NK cell cultures secreted primarily latent TGF-beta into their culture medium, as determined by the Mv1Lu bioassay. These results indicate that, in vitro, endogenous NK cell-derived TGF-beta 1 has no negative autocrine effect upon activation of NK cells by various cytokines.