The vertebrate ocular lens is a simple and continuously growing tissue. Growth factor-mediated receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) are believed to be required for lens cell proliferation, differentiation and survival. The signaling pathways downstream of the RTKs remain to be elucidated. Here, we demonstrate the important role of Ras in lens development by expressing a dominant-negative form of Ras (dn-Ras) in the lens of transgenic mice. We show that lens in the transgenic mice was smaller and lens growth was severely inhibited as compared to the wild-type lens. However, the lens shape, polarity and transparency appeared normal in the transgenic mice. Further analysis showed that cell proliferation is inhibited in the dn-Ras lens. For example, the percentage of 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdU)-labeled cells in epithelial layer was about 2- to 3-fold lower in the transgenic lens than in the wild-type lens, implying that Ras activity is required for normal cell proliferation during lens development. We also found a small number of apoptotic cells in both epithelial and fiber compartment of the transgenic lens, suggesting that Ras also plays a role in cell survival. Interestingly, although there was a delay in primary fiber cell differentiation, secondary fiber cell differentiation was not significantly affected in the transgenic mice. For example, the expression of beta- and gamma-crystallins, the marker proteins for fiber differentiation, was not changed in the transgenic mice. Biochemical analysis indicated that ERK activity, but not Akt activity, was significantly reduced in the dn-Ras transgenic lenses. Overall, our data imply that the RTK-Ras-ERK signaling pathway is essential for cell proliferation and, to a lesser extent, for cell survival, but not for crystallin gene expression during fiber differentiation. Thus, some of the fiber differentiation processes are likely mediated by RTK-dependent but Ras-independent pathways.