We examined the effect of the human T lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV- I) Tax gene product on the human transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF- beta 1) promoter. Transfection of deleted constructs of the TGF-beta 1 promoter revealed regions homologous with AP-1 binding sites that were required for Tax-induced transactivation of the TGF-beta 1 promoter. In addition, we examined the expression and secretion of TGF-beta in fresh leukemic cells isolated from patients with adult T cell leukemia (ATL) and in HTLV-1-infected T cell lines. We report that fresh leukemic cells from ATL patients constitutively produce high levels of TGF-beta 1 mRNA and secrete TGF-beta 1 but not TGF-beta 2 into the culture medium. In addition, long-term ATL cell lines expressed significant amounts of TGF-beta 1 mRNA as well as detectable levels of TGF-beta 1 protein. These results suggest a role for Tax in the upregulation of TGF-beta 1 in HTLV-I-infected cells.