Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), a natural ligand for the c-met protooncogene product, is a multipotent polypeptide which elicits mitogenic, motogenic, and morphogenic activities for various types of cells. To better understand the biological activity of HGF, as related to neuroectodermal-derived cells, we investigated the effects of HGF on rat pheochromocytoma PC12 cells. HGF increased the number of PC12 cells during long culture, but elicited no direct mitogenic activity, as determined by DNA synthesis. When the cells were cultured in medium containing lower concentrations of fetal calf serum, HGF prolonged the survival of PC12 cells; the number of cells did not decrease during 13 days when the cells were cultured in the presence of HGF, but the cells were completely withdrawn when cultured in the absence of HGF. Nerve growth factor but not HGF induced the differentiation of PC12 cells. High affinity receptor for HGF with Kd values of 20-40 pM was expressed in PC12 cells and other types of cells derived from the central nervous tissue: T98G cells (human glioblastoma), GOTO, and SCCH-26 cells (human neuroblastoma). HGF stimulated motility of T98G cells, while it induced weak mitogenic response in GOTO cells. We suggest that HGF is a potent survival factor for PC12 cells, without exerting any direct mitogenic activity and inducing the cell differentiation, and that this factor may have a distinct biological activity for neuroectoderm-derived cells.