To determine the mechanism of signaling for transforming growth factor alpha (TGFalpha) in human endometrium, uterine luminal fluid proteins were retrieved by lavage followed by collection of the adjacent endometrium at hysterectomy. In the endometrium we observed the presence of the full-length transmembrane TGFalpha protein and the phosphorylation of its only known receptor, the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), by immunoprecipitation-Western blot; TGFalpha mRNA via reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction; and immunolocalization of TGFalpha to the surface endometrium adjacent to the uterine lumen. Despite this demonstration of TGFalpha in functional endometrium, we could not detect measurable amounts of TGFalpha in any of the 16 endometrial washings by either immunoprecipitation-Western blot or by ELISA. Recovery rate for intraluminal fluid spiked with TGFalpha control peptide was 93.4-97%. The inability to detect TGFalpha in intraluminal fluid despite its high concentration in cells directly adjacent to the uterine lumen, along with the absence of any cleaved TGFalpha species identified in the endometrium, suggests that TGFalpha signals its receptor as a transmembrane ligand. Since the EGFR is present in the endometrium and on the surface of embryos, these data are consistent with a juxtacrine mode of signaling for TGFalpha between endometrial cells, and between the luminal surface epithelium and preimplantation embryos.