The effects of epidermal growth factor (EGF) and phorbol ester (tetra-O-decanoylphorbol-16-acetate; TPA) on thyroid epithelial integrity were studied in filter-cultured monolayers of porcine thyrocytes, which before experiments were growth-arrested and had a high transepithelial resistance (RTE > 6.10(3) omega.cm2) and polarized, thyroid-specific functions. Both EGF and TPA stimulated dose-dependently the cellular incorporation of [3H]thymidine, which maximally (at 10 ng/ml EGF for 48 h) corresponded to a 65% increase of the DNA content. The EGF-treated cells proliferated mainly within the original monolayer, which became folded due to the increased cell number; clusters of epithelial cells also assembled between the monolayer and the filter. Although the transepithelial potential difference was reduced, from 15-30 mV in controls to 2-10 mV, the epithelial barrier function was maintained (RTE 1-3.10(3) omega.cm2; impermeability to [3H]inulin). EGF did not change the ultrastructural polarity of the plasma membrane or the distinct distribution of ZO-1 and cadherin immunoreactivities to junctions, but cytoplasmic cadherin present in controls disappeared after EGF. In cultures acutely depleted of extracellular Ca2+ EGF pretreatment for 48 h antagonized the preventive effect of thyrotropin on paracellular leakage and loss of cell-cell adhesion. TPA (0.1 microM) induced a temporary barrier dysfunction (maximal after 24 h) accompanied by pronounced alterations of cell shape and actin-based cytoskeleton, dissociation of junctional cadherin, and shedding of cells into the apical medium. In long-term (2-5 days) TPA-treated cultures the epithelial morphotype and barrier function recovered. The combined stimulation with EGF and TPA caused a persistent derangement of the cell layer including attenuation of ZO-1 at cell-cell contacts, paracellular leakage of [3H]inulin, and cell detachment. We conclude that EGF is able to release porcine thyroid epithelial cells from contact inhibition of growth along with intact cell polarity and tight junctions. Yet, when acting together with phorbol ester EGF provokes a lasting morphological transformation. Impaired positive control of Ca(2+)-dependent cell-cell adhesion in EGF-treated cultures suggests a latent defect with possible transforming potential in the cadherin-based regulation of the junctional complex.