Epidermal growth factor (EGF) protects gastric mucosa against acute injury produced by a variety of damaging agents, but the mechanism of its protective action is not clear. Since the surface epithelial cells (SEC) are important component of gastric mucosal defence, we studied whether EGF may directly protect isolated gastric SEC against ethanol injury in vitro, in condition independent of systemic factors and whether endogenous prostaglandins may play a role in EGF's protective action. The isolated SEC from rat gastric mucosa were preincubated in medium only, or medium containing 0.0001-10.0 micrograms/ml of h-rEGF for 15 minutes, and incubated with 8% ethanol for 1 hour. In another study the above experiment was repeated but cells were pretreated with 10(-4) or 10(-5) M indomethacin before EGF treatment. The cell viability was assessed by fast green exclusion test. Incubation of SEC with 8% ethanol significantly reduced SEC cell viability to 50 +/- 2%: EGF 0.1 or 1.0 microgram/ml significantly reduced ethanol induced damage (cell viability 59 +/- 3 and 62 +/- 3% respectively). Pretreatment with 10(-4) M indomethacin (the dose which does not affect SEC viability but inhibit PGE2 and PGI2 generation), significantly reduced protective action of EGF against 8% ethanol injury. EGF 1.0 and 10.0 micrograms/ml alone without ethanol increased PGE2 and 6 keto PGF1 alpha generation by SEC. These studies demonstrated: 1) EGF is able to protect gastric surface epithelial cells directly without mediation by systemic factors. 2) EGF induced protection of SEC may in part be mediated by prostaglandins.