Isoform-specific antibodies to TGF beta 1, TGF beta 2, and TGF beta 3 proteins were generated and have been used to examine the expression of these factors in the developing mouse embryo from 12.5-18.5 d post coitum (d.p.c.). These studies demonstrate the initial characterization of both TGF beta 2 and beta 3 in mammalian embryogenesis and are compared with TGF beta 1. Expression of one or all three TGF beta proteins was observed in many tissues, e.g., cartilage, bone, teeth, muscle, heart, blood vessels, lung, kidney, gut, liver, eye, ear, skin, and nervous tissue. Furthermore, all three TGF beta proteins demonstrated discrete cell-specific patterns of expression at various stages of development and the wide variety of tissues expressing TGF beta proteins represent all three primary embryonic germ layers. For example, specific localization of TGF beta 1 was observed in the lens fibers of the eye (ectoderm), TGF beta 2 in the cortex of the adrenal gland (mesoderm), and TGF beta 3 in the cochlear epithelium of the inner ear (endoderm). Compared to the expression of TGF beta mRNA transcripts in a given embryonic tissue, TGF beta proteins were frequently colocalized within the same cell type as the mRNA, but in some cases were observed to localize to different cells than the mRNA, thereby indicating that a complex pattern of transcription, translation, and secretion for TGF beta s 1-3 exists in the mouse embryo. This also indicates that TGF beta 1, beta 2, and beta 3 act through both paracrine and autocrine mechanisms during mammalian embryogenesis.