Intracellular pH (pHi) plays an important role in the metabolic activation of quiescent cells after a proliferative stimulus, and Na+/H+ exchange activity is required for growth in some extrahepatic tumors. To investigate intracellular acid/base homeostasis in hepatoma cells and the effects of putative liver growth factors on Na+/h+ exchange activity, we have studied intracellular pH (pHi) regulation in Hep G2 cells, a well-differentiated hepatoma cell line, both in resting conditions and after administration of epidermal growth factor (EGF), transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF alpha), and insulinlike growth factor-II (IGF-II). The effects of fetal calf serum, TGF alpha, and amiloride on 3H-Thymidine incorporation were also studied. Amiloride (1 mmol/L) and external Na+ removal decreased baseline pHi in both HEPES and KRB. In HEPES, cells recovered from an acid load (20 mmol/L NH4Cl) by an amiloride inhibitable Na+/H+ exchange. In KRB, an additional, DIDS-inhibitable, Na(+)- and HCO3- dependent, but Cl(-)-independent acid extruder (Na:HCO3 cotransport) was activated. No evidence was found for a Cl/HCO3 exchange acting as acid loader. Administration of EGF and TGF alpha, but not of IGF-II, induced a dose-dependent, amiloride-inhibitable increase in baseline pHi, together with an increase in Na+/H+ exchange activity, shifting to the right the JH/pHi curve. Finally, 3H-thymidine incorporation in Hep G2 cells, in the presence of FCS or TGF alpha, was strongly inhibited by amiloride. In conclusion, in Hep G2 cells, pHi is mainly regulated by Na+/H+ exchange, which activity can be stimulated by EGF and TGF alpha, but not by IGF-II. Administration of TGF alpha stimulates DNA synthesis, an effect that is blocked by amiloride, an inhibitor of Na+/H+ exchanger. These data suggest that Na+/H+ exchange activation may play a critical role in the growth of some hepatic tumors.