Cellular responses to wounding have often been studied at a molecular level after disrupting cell layers by mechanical means. This invariably results in damage to cells at the edges of the wounds, which has been suggested to be instrumental for initiating wound healing. To test this, we devised an alternative procedure to introduce gaps in layers of corneal epithelial cells by casting agarose strips on tissue culture plates. In contrast to mechanical wounding, removal of the strips did not lead to detectable membrane leakage or to activation of the stress-activated kinase JNK. Nonetheless, cells at the edge underwent the typical morphological transition to a highly motile phenotype, and the gaps closed at rates similar to those of mechanically induced wounds. To allow biochemical analysis of cell extracts, a procedure was devised that makes cell-free surface area acutely available to a large proportion of cells in culture. Rapid activation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) was detected by immunoblotting, and the addition of an EGFR-blocking antibody completely abolished wound healing. In addition, wound healing was inhibited by agents that block signaling by the heparin-binding epidermal growth factor-like growth factor (HB-EGF). Cells stimulated with cell-free tissue culture surface released a soluble factor that induced activation of the EGFR, which was distinct from HB-EGF. These studies suggest that the triggering event for the induction of motility in corneal epithelial cells is related to the sudden availability of permissive surface area rather than to mechanical damage, and they demonstrate a central role of signaling through HB-EGF.