Growth factors affect a variety of epithelial functions. We examined the ability of TGF-beta to modulate epithelial ion transport and permeability. Filter-grown monolayers of human colonic epithelia, T84 and HT-29 cells, were treated with TGF-beta (0.1-100 ng/ml, 15 min-72 h) or infected with an adenoviral vector encoding TGF-beta (Ad-TGF beta) for 144 h. Ion transport (i.e., short-circuit current, I(sc)) and transepithelial resistance (TER) were assessed in Ussing chambers. Neither recombinant TGF-beta nor Ad-TGF beta infection affected baseline I(sc); however, exposure to > or = 1 ng/ml TGF-beta led to a significant (30-50%) reduction in the I(sc) responses to forskolin, vasoactive intestinal peptide, and cholera toxin (agents that evoke Cl(-) secretion via cAMP mobilization) and to the cell-permeant dibutyryl cAMP. Pharmacological analysis of signaling pathways revealed that the inhibition of cAMP-driven epithelial Cl(-) secretion by TGF-beta was blocked by pretreatment with SB-203580, a specific inhibitor of p38 MAPK, but not by inhibitors of JNK, ERK1/2 MAPK, or phosphatidylinositol 3'-kinase. TGF-beta enhanced the barrier function of the treated monolayers by up to threefold as assessed by TER; however, this event was temporally displaced from the altered I(sc) response, being statistically significant only at 72 h posttreatment. Thus, in addition to TGF-beta promotion of epithelial barrier function, we show that this growth factor also reduces responsiveness to cAMP-dependent secretagogues in a chronic manner and speculate that this serves as a braking mechanism to limit secretory enteropathies.