Snake venoms are a very abundant source of nerve growth factors (NGF). NGFs of Elapidae showing 65% sequence homology with mouse or human NGF, while the Viperidae NGF shows N-glycosylation (Asn-21) typical of these mammalian NGFs. Snake NGF-induced neurite outgrowth (neurotropic activity) was measured in the past by using PC12 cell or dorsal root ganglion bioassays. The present study was aimed at comparing, by dose-response experiments, the neurotropic activity of cobra and vipera versus mammalian NGFs, by using a novel bioassay involving PC12 cells genetically engineered to overexpress NGF-trkA receptors of human origin. These cells respond to NGF by differentiation (morphologically expressed as neurite outgrowth) by a process mediated by NGF-trkA receptors. This process was evaluated by two different criteria: (1) elongation of neurites (E), and (2) Percentage of responsive cells (PRC) determined by digital acquisition of data and computer analysis. We found that snake venom NGFs were less potent than mouse NGF, and that cobra NGF was more potent than vipera NGF. These data indicate the following order of NGF activity towards recombinant human trkA receptors: recombinant human NGF>mouse NGF>cobra NGF>vipera NGF. The neurotropic efficacy of these NGFs was found to be similar, reaching 80-90% of maximal activity obtained with all NGF forms. Interestingly, cobra (but not vipera) NGF demonstrated prolonged neurotropic activity compared with mouse NGF. The results of the present study indicate that cobra and vipera venom NGFs represent natural agonists of human trkA-receptor of a lower potency, but of similar efficacy, compared with mammalian NGFs. These compounds are important pharmacological tools to characterize the trkA receptor structure-function relationship, and to develop novel neurotropic drugs.