Previous studies have suggested that EGF or other members of the EGF family of mitogenic proteins are involved in proliferation of renal tubular epithelial cells occurring during recovery from injury to the kidney. The present studies examined whether expression of mRNA for the recently identified heparin-binding EGF-like growth factor (HB-EGF) is regulated in response to renal injury induced by either ischemia/reperfusion or mercuric chloride. Increased expression of HB-EGF mRNA was demonstrated in the post-ischemic kidney within 45 min of unilateral ischemia/reperfusion in the rat. Induction of HB-EGF mRNA occurred only when ischemia was followed by reperfusion, and was not eliminated by removal of blood cells from the post-ischemic kidney by saline perfusion. In situ hybridization with 35S-labeled antisense riboprobes of HB-EGF indicated that compared with control, there was increased HB-EGF mRNA expression in the 6 h post-ischemic kidney in the inner cortex and outer medulla in a patchy distribution, with the greatest expression in the inner stripe of the outer medulla. Expression occurred primarily in tubular epithelial cells. Recombinant human HB-EGF stimulated [3H]-thymidine incorporation in both primary cultures of rabbit proximal tubule cells and NRK 52E normal rat kidney epithelial cells, with potency similar to that of EGF. Induction of HB-EGF mRNA was observed in tubules freshly isolated from rat renal cortex or outer medulla when the tubules were subjected to reoxygenation after incubation in anoxic conditions. The nephrotoxin, mercuric chloride, also caused induction of HB-EGF mRNA both in vivo and in isolated rat cortical tubules. The anoxia/reoxygenation-induced expression of HB-EGF mRNA in isolated tubules was inhibited by the free radical scavengers, di- and tetra-methylthiourea, indicating involvement of reactive oxygen species. These findings indicate that HB-EGF mRNA is inducible in the kidney in vivo by acute tubular injury and suggest that HB-EGF may act as an autocrine/paracrine growth factor involved in proliferation of tubular epithelial cells and repair of the kidney.