Epidermal growth factor (EGF) has been shown to be present in the milk of several species, including the rat, and to have gastrointestinal effects when given parenterally or orally in pharmacologic doses. We investigated the effect of enteral EGF in physiologic doses on the small intestine and colon of suckling rats. Serum thyroxine (T4) levels were also measured. Rats were gavage-fed by hand with an artificial formula with or without added EGF every 3 h from 11 to 14 days of age. Intake was adjusted to deliver 30 kcal/100 g b.wt./day of formula and 16 micrograms/kg/day of EGF approximating the daily caloric intake, and about twice the estimated daily EGF intake for suckling rats. Weight gain did not differ between groups (fed EGF: 3.8 + 0.2 g; not fed EGF: 3.7 + 0.1 g). The protein content of the whole colon of rats fed an EGF-containing formula was significantly lower and the DNA content significantly higher, than in rats fed formula without added EGF. The protein/DNA ratio was therefore markedly higher in the animals fed formula without added EGF; these effects were most evident in the distal colon. In contrast, there was no effect of EGF on small intestinal protein and DNA content; lactase, sucrase, and maltase activities were likewise unaffected, as was serum T4. These data suggest a physiologic role for breast milk EGF in the development of the suckling rat colon.