The effects of exogenously added transforming growth factor (TGF alpha and TGF beta on the growth of BALB/MK cells were examined. TGF alpha supplanted the epidermal growth factor (EGF) requirement in these cells. In contrast, TGF beta reversibly inhibited the growth of BALB/MK cells by abrogating the stimulatory actions of EGF or TGF alpha. The inhibitory effects of TGF beta appeared to be mediated by events distal to EGF ligand-receptor interactions. Growth inhibition of BALB/MK cells by TGF beta did not result in the induction of differentiation. This finding is different from the growth inhibition of these cells induced by elevated calcium levels (1.5 mM) which was tightly coupled to terminal differentiation. The BALB/MK cells were found to express TGF alpha mRNA, as well as TGF beta mRNA and protein. In addition, TGF alpha, as well as EGF, enhanced TGF alpha gene expression. These studies suggest a role for endogenous TGFs in regulating BALB/MK proliferation. TGF alpha provides a positive growth signal, while TGF beta is a potent inhibitor of growth even in the presence of such positive modulators as TGF alpha and EGF.