Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), which is a potent growth factor of adult rat hepatocytes in primary culture, also strongly stimulated DNA synthesis of rabbit renal tubular epithelial cells in secondary culture. Its mitogenic activity was dose-dependent, being detectable at 3 ng/ml and maximal at 30 ng/ml. Over 20% of the cells were shifted to the S-phase by HGF alone, judging by the labeling index. HGF had additive effects with EGF, acidic fibroblast growth factor (a-FGF), and insulin. Transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) strongly inhibited DNA synthesis of renal tubular cells stimulated by HGF. The growth of renal tubular epithelial cells was also regulated by cell density: DNA synthesis stimulated by HGF was high at lower cell density and was strongly suppressed at high cell density. These results suggest that HGF may act as a renotropic factor in compensatory renal growth or renal regeneration in vivo.