Five out of 6 cell lines derived from metastatic melanoma lesions grew in a chemically defined base medium consisting of a mixture of calcium-supplemented MCDB 153 and L 15 media in the absence of any polypeptide growth factors. In contrast, under these conditions no growth was seen in any of 5 primary melanoma cell lines tested, including 2 cell lines from patients whose metastatic cells proliferated well in base medium. Growth stimulation of all 11 melanoma cell lines by epidermal growth factor (EGF), transferrin, insulin, and insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1 alone and in various combinations was studied. Insulin represented the strongest single growth factor for primary and metastatic melanoma cell lines. The metastatic cell lines remained growth-responsive to EGF, insulin and transferrin and responded more vigorously to these exogenously provided mitogens than the primary cell lines. No synergistic or additive growth effects of insulin, transferrin, or EGF for primary and metastatic cell lines were observed. Cross-linking studies with 125I-IGF-1 demonstrate surface expression of the type-I IGF receptor on melanoma cells. Growth stimulation by insulin and IGF-1 was inhibited by adding to the culture medium a monoclonal antibody to the type-I IGF receptor. Our studies indicate that IGF-1 and insulin are major growth factors for melanoma cells and act via the type-I IGF receptor.