BACKGROUND: Nodal is a member of the transforming growth factor beta (TGFbeta) superfamily that directs embryonic patterning and promotes the plasticity and tumorigenicity of tumor cells, but its role in the prostate is unknown. The goal of this study was to characterize the expression and function of Nodal in prostate cancer and determine whether, like other TGFbeta ligands, it modulates androgen receptor (AR) activity. METHODS: Nodal expression was investigated using immunohistochemistry of tissue microarrays and Western blots of prostate cell lines. The functional role of Nodal was examined using Matrigel and soft agar growth assays. Cross-talk between Nodal and AR signaling was assessed with luciferase reporter assays and expression of endogenous androgen regulated genes. RESULTS: Significantly increased Nodal expression was observed in cancer compared with benign prostate specimens. Nodal was only expressed by DU145 and PC3 cells. All cell lines expressed Nodal's co-receptor, Cripto-1, but lacked Lefty, a critical negative regulator of Nodal signaling. Recombinant human Nodal triggered downstream Smad2 phosphorylation in DU145 and LNCaP cells, and stable transfection of pre-pro-Nodal enhanced the growth of LNCaP cells in Matrigel and soft agar. Finally, Nodal attenuated AR signaling, reducing the activity of a PSA promoter construct in luciferase assays and down-regulating the endogenous expression of androgen regulated genes. CONCLUSIONS: An aberrant Nodal signaling pathway is re-expressed and functionally active in prostate cancer cells.