Melanoma growth stimulatory activity (MGSA) was originally described as an endogenous growth factor for human melanoma cells. To test the hypothesis that an MGSA autocrine loop is responsible for the partial freedom from growth control observed in nevocytes and melanoma cells, MGSA growth response and MGSA mRNA/protein levels were examined in these cells compared with normal melanocytes. As a single agent, or in combination with other factors, MGSA stimulated the growth of normal human epidermal melanocytes as well as other growth promoters for melanocytes. Nevocytes were not as responsive to exogenous MGSA as melanocytes. MGSA mRNA was minimal or not detected in cultured normal melanocytes, although the protein was present when the cells were cultured in the presence of serum/growth factors and absent when serum/growth factors were omitted. In contrast, MGSA mRNA was constitutively expressed in the absence of exogenous growth factors in cultures established from benign intradermal and dysplastic nevi and melanoma lesions in different stages of tumor progression. Nevus cultures contained immunoreactive MGSA protein in the presence of serum but were negative or only faintly positive in the absence of serum. Melanoma cell lines were positive for MGSA protein in both the presence and the absence of serum. Thus, continued expression of both MGSA mRNA and MGSA protein in the absence of exogenous hormones or serum factors may correlate with partial freedom from growth control exhibited by malignant melanocytes.