Activin and inhibin are members of the transforming growth factor-beta (TGF beta) gene family. They are expressed in various organ systems, where they possess regulatory functions. Inhibin, activin, and TGF beta have been reported to also be expressed in the adult rat testis. We studied in vitro the action of these growth factors on premitotic and premeiotic DNA synthesis during the rat seminiferous epithelial cycle. Two-millimeter rat seminiferous tubule segments were isolated by transillumination-assisted microdissection from stages V, VIIa, VIII-IX, and I of the cycle and incubated in vitro in the presence of activin-A, inhibin-A, or TGF beta 1. During 24-, 48-, and 72-h incubation spontaneous progression of spermatogenesis was noted. The staged samples allowed us to selectively quantitate DNA synthetic activity of specific germ cell types. At the end of the culture, the tubules were pulse labeled with [3H]thymidine, and DNA synthesis was quantified by liquid scintillation counting, and the activated cells were detected by autoradiography. Activin-A stimulated preleptotene spermatocyte DNA synthesis in a dose-dependent manner. DNA synthesis of intermediate spermatogonia was also stimulated by activin-A, whereas inhibin-A inhibited DNA synthesis of these cells. TGF beta 1 had a small, but significant, stimulatory effect on DNA synthetic activity at stage VII. These results support the view that activin-A, inhibin-A, and TGF beta 1 take part in the regulation of DNA synthesis during rat spermatogenesis.