Although tyrosine kinases (Tyr-k) are known to play a role in regulating proliferation of normal, preneoplastic and neoplastic cells, little is known about the identity of different species of Tyr-k involved in this process. Utilizing a non-denaturing polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis system, in which the separated proteins from tissue extracts are assayed directly for Tyr-k, we attempted to identify the species of Tyr-k that may be involved in azoxymethane (AOM) induction of colonic mucosal ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) activity, an enzyme whose activity is known to rise in rapidly proliferating cells. We have observed that 5 days after a single injection of the colonic carcinogen AOM (20 mg/kg body wt) to 3-4-month old rats, a significant 230% rise in colonic mucosal proliferative activity (as evidenced by 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdU) immunoreactivity) was also accompanied by a 550% increase in ODC activity. This was also associated with a marked rise (140-240%) in the relative activity of Tyr-k of three mucosal proteins with MI of 165, 145 and 125 kDa. Since the molecular mass of one of the Tyr-k (165 kDa) corresponded to that of EGF-receptor (EGF-R), this led us to examine the role of EGF-R Tyr-k in AOM induction of colonic mucosal ODC. We observed that a 320% increase in mucosal ODC activity, 5 days after AOM injection, was accompanied by over 200% rise in Tyr-k activity of EGF-R. Daily injection of tyrphostin (300 micrograms/kg body wt.), a Tyr-k inhibitor with a higher specificity for EGF-R Tyr-k, significantly attenuated AOM-induced stimulation of both ODC and Tyr-k activity of EGF-R. Administration of AOM also stimulated the rate of synthesis and secretion of TGF-alpha in isolated colonocytes. In addition, the levels of TGF-alpha and its mRNA in the colonic mucosa were also found to be 100% and 250% higher, respectively, in AOM-treated rats when compared with the controls. We suggest that (a) activation of intrinsic Tyr-k of EGF-R is an important event in AOM induction of colonic mucosal proliferative processes, and (b) this activation is thought to be mediated by TGF-alpha through an autocrine mechanism.