Growth factors can be divided into two classes which act through distinct signal transduction pathways. One class including epidermal growth factor, platelet derived growth factor and fibroblast growth factor activates receptor tyrosine kinases, and the second class, including thrombin, bombesin, bradykinin and vasopressin activates a phosphoinositide-specific phospholipase C through GTP-binding proteins which can be inactivated by pertussis toxin. In Chinese hamster lung fibroblasts, thrombin-induced mitogenicity seems to correlate well with phospholipase C activation and both events are sensitive to pertussis toxin. Thrombin, like the other mitogens in this class, simultaneously inhibits adenylate cyclase. This involves an inhibitory G protein (Gi), a well established pertussis toxin substrate. The relative contributions of the two signalling pathways to mitogenicity has not been evaluated so far. We report here that the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), a contracting agent and mitogen for smooth muscle cells, activates phospholipase C, inhibits adenylate cyclase and stimulates DNA synthesis in fibroblasts. These events are sensitive to pertussis toxin. We show that the mitogenicity of 5-hydroxytryptamine can be uncoupled from phospholipase C activation that is mediated by 5-HT2 receptors, but correlates perfectly with inhibition of adenylate cyclase through 5-HT1B receptor. We propose that inhibition of adenylate cyclase or activation of an undefined effector system by Gi is important in 5-hydroxytryptamine induced DNA synthesis and contributes to the strong mitogenicity of the other members of this family of growth factors.