Previous studies in vivo and in vitro show that KIT kinase promotes normal melanocyte development and growth. However, the role of the KIT proto-oncogene in neoplastic melanocytes is not certain. We therefore examined KIT expression and function in human melanomas. Our results show that KIT mRNA was expressed in 12 of 28 melanoma cell lines (approximately 40%), mainly in those originating from pigmented tumors. Surprisingly, activation of KIT with mast cell growth factor (MGF) in melanoma cells produced biological responses opposite to those elicited in normal melanocytes. MGF inhibited rather than stimulated the growth of metastatic melanoma cell lines. The opposite effects may be due to aberrant signal transduction by KIT in melanoma cells in response to MGF. The in vitro inhibition of melanoma cells by MGF suggests that growth in vivo of this tumor is not promoted by KIT kinase activation, but rather that transformed melanocytes might regress when MGF is expressed in their immediate environment.