Overexpression of the erbB-2/neu gene is frequently detected in human cancers. When overexpressed in NIH 3T3 cells, the normal erbB-2 product, gp185erbB-2, displays potent transforming ability as well as constitutively elevated levels of tyrosine kinase activity in the absence of exogenously added ligand. To investigate the basis for its chronic activation we sought evidence of a ligand for gp185erbB-2 either in serum or produced by NIH 3T3 cells in an autocrine manner. We demonstrate that a putative ligand for gp185erbB-2 is not contained in serum. Chimeric molecules composed of the extracellular domain of gp185erbB-2 and the intracellular portion of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) did not show any transforming ability or constitutive autophosphorylation when they were expressed in NIH 3T3 cells. However, they were able to transduce a mitogenic signal when triggered by a monoclonal antibody directed against the extracellular domain of erbB-2. These results provide evidence against the idea that an erbB-2 ligand is produced by NIH 3T3 cells. Furthermore, we obtained direct evidence of the constitutive enzymative activity of gp185erbB-2 by demonstrating that the erbB-2 kinase remained active in a chimeric configuration with the extracellular domain of the EGFR, in the absence of any detectable ligand for the EGFR. Thus, under conditions of overexpression, the normal gp185erbB-2 is a constitutively active kinase able to transform NIH 3T3 cells in the absence of ligand.