ErbB-2 and EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) are expressed in lung adenocarcinomas and associated with a poor prognosis. Immunocytochemical analysis revealed erbB-2 and EGFR coexperession as a characteristic feature of most lung adenocarcinomas, and at levels of receptor expression present in bronchial epithelial cells. In primary lung tumours and cell lines, erbB-2 detected using Western blot analysis demonstrated low-level phosphotyrosine staining of the 185 kDa band, as compared with breast cancer cell lines. A549 and A427 lung adenocarcinoma cells treated with neu differentiation factor (NDF) showed increased erbB-2 phosphotyrosine staining, but to a much lesser extent than breast cancer cells. The lung cells were examined for expression of the potential autocrine growth factors NDF and transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha) by Northern blot analysis. Both NDF and TFG-alpha mRNA were abundantly expressed in the A549 cells. NDF mRNA was highest during active cell proliferation and decreased in confluent cells or after treatment with the growth-inhibitory steroid dexamethasone. Primary tumours and cell lines expressed EGFR, showing higher basal level phosphotyrosine staining than erbB-2. Treatment with NDF and EGF (epidermal growth factor) stimulated cell growth, and in A549 cells the presence of both factors provided an additive increase in cell growth. The growth stimulus that ligand-activated erbB-2 and EGFR provides to lung adenocarcinoma cells may establish a background of continued cell proliferation over which other critical transforming events may occur.