Mechanisms regulating Schwann cell proliferation during development are unclear. Schwann cell division is known to be driven by an unidentified mitogen present on the surface of axons, but it is not known whether other molecules play a role in regulating this proliferation. Transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) which is found in the developing peripheral nervous system (PNS) and is mitogenic for neuron-free Schwann cells in vitro could be involved. We have investigated the effects of TGF-beta 1, TGF-beta 2 and antibodies to TGF-beta 1 and TGF-beta 2 on axon driven Schwann cell proliferation. Rat embryonic dorsal root ganglion neurons (DRG) neurons and Schwann cells from the sciatic nerve were isolated, purified and recombined in vitro. Confirming earlier reports by others, we observed that TGF-beta 1 and TGF-beta 2 added to the culture medium stimulated the proliferation of Schwann cells in the absence of neurons. However, when added to neuron-Schwann cell co-cultures, TGF beta caused a variable response ranging from no effect to moderate inhibition of Schwann cell proliferation in different experiments. A stimulation of Schwann cell proliferation by TGF beta was never observed in neuron-Schwann cell co-cultures. Antibodies to TGF-beta 1 and TGF-beta 2 did not influence axon driven Schwann cell proliferation. To further determine the role of TGF-beta in Schwann cell proliferation and myelination, we studied Schwann cell proliferation in cultures from mice in which the TGF-beta 1 gene was delected by homologous recombination. Neuron-Schwann cell cultures from wild-type, heterozygous and homozygous mice were used. No differences were observed in either Schwann cell proliferation or myelination between cultures obtained from homozygous mutants and their heterozygous and wild-type controls. These findings suggest that TGF-beta does not function as a part of the mitogenic mechanism presented by neurons to Schwann cells, but that the presence of active TGF beta in the cellular environment might regulate the degree of proliferation induced by neuronal contact.