The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and the protein products of c-erbB-2 and c-met proto-oncogenes belong to a family of growth factor receptors with tyrosine kinase activity. In human colonic carcinomas, the expression of the EGFR and c-erbB-2 have been studied at the protein level only, while c-met expression has not been reported. We have examined the mRNA expression of these genes in human normal colorectal mucosa and primary carcinomas. The results demonstrate that the normal mucosa shows highly variable levels of EGFR and c-erbB-2 mRNAs, but expresses consistently low amounts of c-met mRNA. Colorectal carcinomas did not express significantly higher levels of the EGFR and c-erbB-2 mRNAs than the normal mucosa. In contrast, c-met was consistently and significantly overexpressed (mean sixfold) in carcinomas as compared with normal mucosa. Seventy percent of paired normal-tumor specimens showed a tumor to normal c-met mRNA ratio of greater than 4. The expression of c-met mRNA was also enhanced in the adenomas, suggesting that over-expression of this proto-oncogene may have mechanistic significance in the early stages of human colorectal carcinogenesis.