Growth factors may play an important role in regulating the growth of the proximal tubule epithelium. To determine which growth factors could be involved, we have investigated the mitogenicity of various purified factors in rat kidney proximal tubule epithelial (RPTE) cells cultured in defined medium. Fibroblast growth factors, aFGF (acidic FGF) and bFGF (basic FGF), stimulate DNA synthesis in a dose-dependent manner, with ED50 values of 4.5 and 3.2 ng/ml, respectively; their effects are not additive. With cholera toxin in the medium, both aFGF and bFGF can replace insulin or epidermal growth factor (EGF) to attain the maximum level of cell growth, but they cannot replace cholera toxin. Cholera toxin specifically potentiates the effects of FGFs on DNA synthesis. At high cell density, both insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) induce DNA synthesis more effectively than EGF, FGFs and cholera toxin. The high concentration (0.2-1.0 microgram/ml) of insulin required for cell growth can be replaced by a low concentration of IGF-1 (10-20 ng/ml), indicating that insulin probably acts through a low affinity interaction with the IGF-1 receptor. Transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) inhibits DNA synthesis induced by individual factors and combinations of factors in a concentration-dependent manner. Northern blot analysis shows that mRNA for TGF-beta 1, IGF-1, and aFGF, but not bFGF are present in rat kidney. Western blot analysis and bioassay data confirmed that the majority of FGF-like protein in rat kidney is aFGF. The data suggest that in addition to EGF, IGFs, and TGF-beta, FGFs may also be important kidney-derived regulators of proximal tubule epithelial cell growth in vivo and in vitro.