Melanocytic neoplasia is characterized by the aberrant overproduction of multiple cytokines in vitro. However, it is largely unknown how cytokine expression relates to melanoma progression in vivo. Transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) is a multifunctional cytokine commonly produced by cultured melanoma cells. The in situ expression of all three TGF-beta isoforms (TGF-beta1, -2, and -3) was determined immunohistochemically in melanocytes and in 51 melanocytic lesions using isoform-specific antibodies. Significant linear trends of expression were observed from melanocytes through nevi and primary and metastatic melanomas for all three isoforms. TGF-beta1 was expressed by some melanocytes and almost uniformly by nevi and melanomas. TGF-beta2 and -3 were not expressed in normal melanocytes but were expressed in nevi and early and advanced primary (radial and vertical growth phase) and metastatic melanomas in a tumor-progression-related manner. TGF-beta2 was heterogeneously expressed in advanced primary and metastatic melanomas, whereas TGF-beta3 was uniformly and highly expressed in these lesions. Thus, expression of TGF-beta isoforms in melanocytes and melanocytic lesions is heterogeneous and related to tumor progression, and expression of TGF-beta2 and TGF-beta3 commences at critical junctures during progression of nevi to primary melanomas.