The presence of protein in the urine of patients with renal disease is an adverse prognostic feature. It has therefore been suggested that proteinuria per se may be responsible for the development of renal tubulo-interstitial scarring and fibrosis, and disturbances in tubular cell growth and proliferation. We have used the opossum kidney proximal tubular cell line to investigate the effects of albumin on cell growth. The effect of albumin on cell proliferation was investigated by cell counting and measurement of [(3)H]thymidine incorporation. We studied the effect of recombinant human albumin on the activity of p44/p42 extracellular-signal-regulated mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAP kinase ) using an in vitro kinase assay, and immunoblotting with antibodies against active extracellular-signal-regulated kinase (ERK). The effects of the ERK inhibitor PD98059 were also examined. Recombinant human albumin was found to stimulate proliferation of opossum kidney cells in a dose-dependent manner, with maximal stimulation at a concentration of 1 mg/ml. In addition, recombinant human albumin activated ERK in a time-dependent (maximal after 5 min) and dose-dependent (maximal at 1 mg/ml) fashion. These effects on cell proliferation and ERK activity were inhibited by PD98059, and were not reproduced by ovalbumin or mannitol. The data therefore indicate that albumin is able to stimulate growth and proliferation of proximal tubular cells that is dependent on the ERK family of MAP kinases. The potential importance of this pathway in the development of renal disease is discussed.