Expression of epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor by human breast cancer tissues has an inverse relationship with expression of the estrogen receptor and may be associated with a poor clinical response. We have studied the regulation of EGF receptor expression in a series of human breast cancer cell lines with varying degrees of estrogen responsiveness. Three estrogen receptor-positive lines, MCF-7, ZR-75-1, and T47D, were found to have less than 70,000 EGF binding sites per cell by radioreceptor assay and were growth stimulated in vitro by EGF. Four estrogen receptor-negative lines, MDA-MB-231, Hs578T, EVSA-T, and BT-20, contained greater than 70,000 EGF binding sites per cell and showed no in vitro growth stimulation by EGF. In all cell lines EGF receptor number was correlated with the amount of EGF receptor protein and RNA. Differences in EGF receptor expression between the cell types was not due to amplification of the EGF receptor gene. Rather, variations in EGF receptor expression between lines were due, at least in part, to differences in the rate of EGF gene transcription as determined by nuclear run-off studies. Our data confirm the previously described inverse relationship between expression of EGF and estrogen receptors. We show here that the absence of estrogen receptor expression in human breast cancer cell lines is associated with higher levels of functional EGF receptor protein and mRNA.