Select members of the TGF-beta family of cytokines play key regulatory roles in skeletal development, structure, and turnover. This laboratory has previously reported that TGF-beta treatment of immortalized normal human fetal osteoblast (hFOB) cells results in the rapid induction of the mRNA levels of a TGF-beta inducible early gene (TIEG) followed by changes in cell proliferation and bone matrix protein production. Previous studies have also shown that nonmembers of the TGF-beta superfamily showed little or no induction of TIEG mRNA. This article further addresses the cytokine specificity of this TIEG induction by examining whether activin and select bone morphogenetic proteins, (BMP-2, BMP-4, and BMP-6), which are representative of different subfamilies of this superfamily, also induce the expression of TIEG in hFOB cells. However, TGF-beta remained the most potent of these cytokines, inducing TIEG mRNA steady-state levels at 0.1 ng/ml, with a maximum induction of 24-fold at 2.0 ng/ml. The BMP-2 (16-fold), BMP-4 (4-fold), and activin (1-3-fold) also induced TIEG mRNA levels, but at reduced degrees compared to TGF-beta (24-fold), and only at much higher cytokine concentrations, e.g., 50-100 ng/ml, compared to 2 ng/ml for TGF-beta. BMP-6 showed no effect on TIEG mRNA levels. The TIEG protein levels generally correlated with the mRNA steady-state levels. As with TGF-beta, BMP-2 treatment of hFOB cells was shown by confocal microscopy to induce a rapid translocation of the TIEG protein to the nucleus. In summary, the relative potencies of these TGF-beta family members to induce TIEG expression generally follows the general osteoinductive capacity of these cytokines, with TGF-beta >>> BMP-2 > BMP-4 > activin >> BMP-6.