The human colon carcinoma cell line LIM1215 proliferates and changes morphology (spread) in a cell density-dependent manner in response to epidermal growth factor (EGF). At high density, production of autocrine transforming growth factor-alpha enables the cells to proliferate and spread in the absence of exogenous EGF or serum. At low cell density (< 1 x 10(4)/cm2) EGF alone fails to elicit a mitogenic or morphological response and requires the presence of conditioned medium (derived from high cell density serum-free culture of the same cells) to exert its effects. This synergy between EGF and LIM1215 conditioned medium was investigated further. Using a low cell density assay and fractionated LIM1215 conditioned medium, we show that EGF-mediated mitogenic and morphological responses are separable. These responses are dependent on the synergistic action of a low molecular weight autocrine survival factor and an extracellular matrix-like spreading factor(s) secreted into the culture medium respectively. We find that under low cell density, serum-free conditions, EGF alone is insufficient to rescue LIM1215 from rapid apoptotic death. Catalase or LIM1215 autocrine survival factor prevent the death of LIM1215 cells and restore their proliferative (but not morphological) response to EGF, suggesting that cell death under these conditions may be the result of oxidative stress. Combination of EGF, partially purified autocrine survival and spreading factors induced proliferation and spreading of low density LIM1215 cells similar to that observed with EGF and unfractionated conditioned medium. GRGDS peptides strongly inhibited the spreading of LIM1215 cells in the presence of EGF and the partially purified autocrine spreading factor, demonstrating that integrin receptors are involved in the spreading process. Comparison of the spreading response of LIM1215 and Colo 526 cells on ASF and various adhesion proteins indicate that ASF is not collagen-I, collagen-IV, fibronectin or vitronectin. Taken together, these results support the concept that the autonomous growth of colon carcinoma cells in vitro is dependent on the synergistic interaction between several autocrine systems.