Members of the trefoil factor (TFF) family are highly expressed in endodermal ulcerative wound healing and selectively in neoplastic proliferation of various glandular epithelia. There is some evidence that TFF1 and TFF3 affect cell motility, are indirectly involved in growth suppression, and are associated with mucin expression. TFF2 is co-expressed with TFF1 in gastric surface epithelial cells, but its potential role in vivo is unclear. We analyzed potential effects on cell proliferation and morphogenesis of TFF2 on a panel of epithelial and mesenchymal cell lines. TFF2 had no measurable effect on the proliferation of any of the cell lines tested. In type 1 collagen lattices, TFF2 at a low concentration (25-100 nM) induced the formation of highly complex branched structures in the breast carcinoma cell line MCF-7 over a period of 14 to 42 days. No significant effect was shown with other cell lines. This morphogenic effect was abolished by monoclonal antibodies specific for either TFF2 or TFF1. TFF2 did not affect cell motility in MCF-7 cells as measured by videomicroscopy, in contrast to previous studies using TFF1. TFF2-treated MCF-7 colonies showed a 30% reduction in the number of apoptotic bodies, corroborated by trypan blue exclusion and DNA fragmentation ELISA, indicating TFF2 promotes cell survival via inhibition of apoptosis and can act as a morphogen in the presence of TFF1. These properties may complement the actions of TFF1 as a motogen and may explain differential expression in endodermal wound healing.