Granulation tissue fibroblasts (myofibroblasts) develop several ultrastructural and biochemical features of smooth muscle (SM) cells, including the presence of microfilament bundles and the expression of alpha-SM actin, the actin isoform typical of vascular SM cells. Myofibroblasts have been proposed to play a role in wound contraction and in retractile phenomena observed during fibrotic diseases. We show here that the subcutaneous administration of transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF beta 1) to rats results in the formation of a granulation tissue in which alpha-SM actin expressing myofibroblasts are particularly abundant. Other cytokines and growth factors, such as platelet-derived growth factor and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, despite their profibrotic activity, do not induce alpha-SM actin in myofibroblasts. In situ hybridization with an alpha-SM actin probe shows a high level of alpha-SM actin mRNA expression in myofibroblasts of TGF beta 1-induced granulation tissue. Moreover, TGF beta 1 induces alpha-SM actin protein and mRNA expression in growing and quiescent cultured fibroblasts and preincubation of culture medium containing whole blood serum with neutralizing antibodies to TGF beta 1 results in a decrease of alpha-SM actin expression by fibroblasts in replicative and non-replicative conditions. These results suggest that TGF beta 1 plays an important role in myofibroblast differentiation during wound healing and fibrocontractive diseases by regulating the expression of alpha-SM actin in these cells.