Several clonal sublines of HCT-116 human colon adenocarcinoma cells were isolated and characterized on the basis of their growth characteristics, intrinsic enterocyte-like differentiation (as assessed by alkaline phosphatase and lactase activities), and responses to butyrate, an inducer of colon tumor cell maturation. The HCT-116 sublines were found to be heterogeneous and several phenotypically distinct clones were identified. Further characterization of these clones indicated that the effects of butyrate on cell growth, alkaline phosphatase activity, and lactase activity were distinct and separable. The growth of all of the clones were inhibited by butyrate (IC50 values varied from 0.44 to 1.5 mM), but the effects of this agent on alkaline phosphatase and lactase activities varied widely. In several sublines butyrate had no effect on either enzyme while in others one or both activities were induced. Additionally, the binding of 125I-epidermal growth factor (EGF) to cell surface receptors was found to be proportional to the expression of lactase activity in the cell. The D3 clone and other sublines with intrinsic lactase activities greater than 100 nmol/mg/min expressed a class of high-affinity EGF receptors (e.g., D3 cells had 3.48 X 10(4) EGF receptors/cell with a kd of 0.61 nM). Other clones with less lactase activity had undetectable levels of 125I-EGF binding. In clones which exhibited greater than twofold increases in lactase activity in response to butyrate, the expression of a large number of low-affinity EGF receptors was also induced. In one such clone, the P1 subline, lactase activity was increased from 70 nmol/mg/min to 230 nmol/mg/min after 96 h in 2 mM butyrate, and the expression of EGF receptors was increased from undetectable levels to 1.18 X 10(5) EGF receptors/cell (kd of 3.2 nM). Northern blot analysis indicated that the increased 125I-EGF binding after butyrate treatment may have been due, in part, to a greater than twofold accumulation of EGF receptor mRNA. In addition, the expression of the messages for transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha) and transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) was examined in butyrate-treated cells. While TGF-alpha mRNA levels were found to correlate with EGF receptor message levels in the HCT-116 clones, TGF-beta mRNA expression was not found to correlate with the butyrate-induced growth inhibition or with increases in EGF receptor expression, alkaline phosphatase activity, or lactase activity in these cells.