A wide variety of human tumors contain an amplified or overexpressed erbB-2 gene, which encodes a growth factor receptor-like protein. When erbB-2 complementary DNA was expressed in NIH/3T3 cells under the control of the SV40 promoter, the gene lacked transforming activity despite expression of detectable levels of the erbB-2 protein. A further five- to tenfold increase in its expression under influence of the long terminal repeat of Moloney murine leukemia virus was associated with activation of erbB-2 as a potent oncogene. The high levels of the erbB-2 product associated with malignant transformation of NIH/3T3 cells were observed in human mammary tumor cells that overexpressed this gene. These findings demonstrate a new mechanism for acquisition of oncogenic properties by genes encoding growth factor receptor-like proteins and provide a functional basis for the role of their overexpression in the development of human malignancies.