Polypeptide growth factors that stimulate cell proliferation bind to cell surface receptors and activate intracellular signal transduction pathways. One major signalling pathway, initiated by phosphatidylinositol (PI) turnover, involves activation of protein kinase C. Some polypeptide growth factors, including mitogens that activate protein kinase C, induce a rapid increase in expression of the proto-oncogenes, c-myc and c-fos. In order to characterize the signal transduction pathways responsible for proto-oncogene activation, we treated Swiss 3T3 cells with the tumor promoter phorbol dibutyrate to generate cells deficient in protein kinase C. These cells were then stimulated with platelet extract, bombesin, or epidermal growth factor (EGF) and the levels of c-myc and c-fos mRNA were determined. Platelet extract or bombesin, which stimulate PI turnover, were substantially weaker inducers of c-myc and c-fos mRNA levels in the protein kinase C-depleted cells, although some variability with platelet extract was noted. EGF, which does not stimulate PI turnover in several cell systems, was by contrast a potent inducer of both proto-oncogenes whether or not the cells were deficient in protein kinase C. Pretreatment of cells with phorbol dibutyrate caused little or no change in the basal levels of c-myc or c-fos mRNA, but led to a small but significant increase in basal levels of ornithine decarboxylase mRNA. These results demonstrate that EGF and growth factors that activate PI turnover induce expression of the c-myc and c-fos proto-oncogenes through different pathways.