Transforming growth factor (TGF) beta1 has been shown to promote differentiation of smooth muscle cells (SMC) from some precursor cells. Whether endogenous TGF beta1 also contributes to SMC differentiation during embryogenesis, however, remains unclear. In this study, a plasmid-based TGF beta1 RNA interference embryonic stem (ES) cell line was constructed. Morphological observation showed that TGF beta1 knockdown significantly prevented differentiated cells from outgrowing from ES cells-derived embryoid bodies (EBs). Immunofluorescence staining indicated that SM alpha-actin-positive cells were confluent and dense in the control group but dispersed in the TGF beta1 knockdown group. RT-PCR and western blot suggested that TGF beta1 knockdown resulted in a decrease in the expression of early SMC markers SM alpha-actin and myocardin in EBs. Both the retarded extension of cell outgrowth and the decrease in SM alpha-actin and myocardin expression could not be rescued by addition of exogenous TGF beta1. These data suggest that endogenous TGF beta1 promotes differentiation of SMC from ES cells.