The human proto-oncogene c-MET encodes a heterodimeric 190 kDa transmembrane protein (p190c-met) with structural features of a tyrosine kinase receptor. The ligand for this putative receptor has not yet been identified. By Northern blot hybridization we found that, among a restricted number of human tissues, c-MET is highly expressed in the liver. This prompted us to test the hypothesis of a functional interaction between the c-MET receptor and Hepatocyte Growth Factor (HGF), a heparin-binding polypeptide consisting of heavy and light chains of 65 and 35 kDa. Nanomolar concentrations of highly purified HGF added to GTL-16 cells, which overexpress the c-MET receptor, enhanced the phosphorylation on tyrosine of the p190c-met kinase. Addition of other known growth factors or serum was ineffective. The kinase activity of the c-MET receptor was also stimulated by HGF in an in vitro assay, after detergent solubilization and partial purification of p190c-met. Moreover, elution of immunoprecipitates obtained with anti-MET antibodies from GTL-16 cell lysates yielded an HGF-responsive kinase activity. These results suggest that HGF, or a growth factor structurally related to HGF, is a candidate ligand for the receptor encoded by c-MET.