Receptor-mediated signal transduction modulates complex cellular behaviours such as cell growth, migration and differentiation. Although photoactivatable proteins have emerged as a powerful tool for controlling molecular interactions and signalling cascades at precise times and spaces using light, many of these light-sensitive proteins are activated by ultraviolent or visible light, which has limited tissue penetration. Here, we report a single-walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT)-assisted approach that enables near-infraredlight-triggered activation of transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) signal transduction, an important signalling pathway in embryonic development and cancer progression. The protein complex of TGF-β and its latency-associated peptide is conjugated onto SWCNTs, where TGF-β is inactive. Upon near-infrared irradiation, TGF-β is released through the photothermal effect of SWCNTs and becomes active. The released TGF-β activates downstream signal transduction in live cells and modulates cellular behaviours. Furthermore, preliminary studies show that the method can be used to mediate TGF-β signalling in living mice.