Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), a novel heparin-binding peptide growth factor of MW 97-kDa, is a potent mitogen for parenchymal hepatocytes. HGF is present in normal serum and increases following liver injury or partial hepatectomy. In addition to liver, HGF mRNA has been detected in kidney. In cultured rabbit proximal tubule cells, recombinant human HGF (10(-10) M) increased DNA synthesis, measured as [3H] thymidine incorporation, from 1345 +/- 213 to 2931 +/- 636 cpm/10(6) cells; n = 9; p < 0.005). HGF was found to exert mitogenic effects at lower concentrations than epidermal growth factor (EGF), with half maximal effects seen at 6 x 10(-11) M compared to 7 x 10(-10) M for EGF. HGF was additive with EGF in stimulating [3H] thymidine incorporation. In addition to rabbit proximal tubule cells, HGF increased proliferation in a cultured mouse proximal tubule cell line, MCT, and in rat glomerular epithelial cells. In contrast, HGF did not stimulate proliferation of either rat mesangial cells or a rat aortic smooth muscle cell line, A7r5. The HGF receptor is the product of the c-met proto-oncogene. C-met mRNA was detected in total kidney and in cultured proximal tubule cells but was not detected in cultured mesangial cells. In contrast, HGF mRNA was detected in mesangial cells but not in cultured proximal tubule cells. Preincubation of rabbit proximal tubule cells with the tyrosine kinase inhibitor, genistein (50 microM), prevented HGF-stimulation of [3H] thymidine incorporation. In LiCl pretreated rabbit proximal tubule cells loaded with [3H] myoinositol, HGF increased total inositol phosphate release, measured by anion exchange chromatography (control: 2181 +/- 414 vs HGF: 2609 +/- 478 cpm/10(6) cells; n = 6; p < 0.05). Although genistein did not affect baseline phosphoinositide hydrolysis, it inhibited the HGF stimulation. Thus, HGF is mitogenic for cultured proximal tubule cells as well as glomerular epithelial cells. Inhibition of proliferation and PI turnover by genistein suggests that HGF's actions are mediated in part by tyrosine kinase activity. In mammalian kidney, HGF released from mesangial cells may serve as a paracrine activator of the adjacent epithelial cells.