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Transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF-alpha) and epidermal growth factor (EGF) are similar in structure and biological activity. In the present study, the distributions of TGF-alpha mRNA, TGF-alpha immunoreactivity, and TGF-alpha-EGF receptor mRNA were examined in epithelial and nonepithelial compartments of the jejunum, and the effect of TGF-alpha on growth of a jejunal crypt cell line (IEC-6) was determined. Epithelial cells eluted from the rat jejunal cryptvillus axis expressed TGF-alpha mRNA at twofold higher levels in the villus tip than in the crypt and EGF receptor mRNA at sevenfold higher levels in the villus tip. Expression of these two mRNA transcripts in the subepithelium was low. Immunohistochemical staining showed TGF-alpha immunoreactivity predominantly in the epithelium and muscularis. Immunostaining of villus cells was uniform, whereas crypt cells did not stain. IEC-6 cells bound 125I-EGF to a single class of high-affinity (dissociation constant = 833 pM) receptors. EGF and TGF-alpha (10 ng/ml) only modestly stimulated IEC-6 cell growth in the presence of 5% serum but increased expression of the protooncogenes c-jun and c-myc threefold over control cells. These findings suggest that, among the potential physiological roles for TGF-alpha produced by the jejunal epithelium, promotion of cell migration and modulation of fluid and electrolyte transport may be as relatively important as stimulation of cell proliferation.