PC12 and INS-1 cells both express the nerve growth factor (NGF) receptors trkA and p75NTR and the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGF). In PC12 cells, NGF treatment initiates a signaling cascade that ultimately leads to a change of the genetic program of the cell. We have investigated the role of NGF in regulating gene transcription in PC12 and INS-1 cells, in order to define if there are NGF-regulated genes per se. Furthermore, to distinguish between growth factor stimulation via receptor tyrosine kinases in general and NGF-specific changes in gene transcription, we analyzed the effects of EGF on gene transcription. First, we tested the biological activities of fusion proteins consisting of the DNA-binding domain of the yeast transcription factor GAL4 and the phosphorylation-dependent activation domains of the transcription factors Elk1, CREB, ATF2 and c-jun in NGF- or EGF-treated PC12 cells. We found a striking increase in the transcriptional activity of the GAL4-Elk1 fusion protein that is a major substrate for the extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase (ERK). This effect was observed in NGF- as well as in EGF-treated PC12 cells. In INS-1 cells, however, the activity of the GAL4-Elk1 fusion protein was induced by NGF, but not by EGF. The effects of NGF and EGF on gene transcription were subsequently studied with plasmids containing reporter genes under control of the Egr-1, c-jun, HES-1 or Bc12 regulatory sequences. NGF stimulated Egr-1 promoter activities in PC12 and INS-1 cells, although the effect was much more pronounced in PC12 cells than in INS-1 cells. EGF also stimulated Egr-1 promoter activity in both PC12 and INS-1 cells. Stimulation of c-jun promoter activity by NGF was observed only in PC12 cells. Deletion mutagenesis demonstrated the importance of the 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate response elements within the c-jun promoter for basal and NGF-mediated transcriptional induction. Likewise, NGF activated HES1 and Bcl2 P1 promoter activities in PC12 cells but not in INS-1 cells and EGF did not show any effects on these promoters. We conclude that in PC12 and INS-1 cells, NGF signaling leads to an activation of the ERK subtype of mitogen-activated protein kinases in the nucleus and a subsequent activation of Egr-1 gene transcription. The NGF-induced transcription of the c-jun, HES1 and Bc12 genes is, in contrast, cell type-specific, indicating that NGF can trigger different gene expression programs dependent on the signaling pathways present in a particular cell type. EGF is clearly able to activate gene transcription, suggesting that the differences in the biological activities of EGF and NGF cannot be explained by the inability of EGF to stimulate gene transcription.