A variety of pathways exist to transmit biological signals. One mechanism used for the regulated control of cell growth and differentiation is through the transduction of signals resulting from the binding of soluble polypeptide growth factors to their cognate receptors. The specificity of growth factor action is mediated by the interaction of ligand with cognate receptors which can lead to exquisite control in a tissue- and developmental-specific manner. In addition, individual receptors on the cell surface can form complex assemblies with other receptor/signal transduction molecules that potentially lead to additional levels of signal transmissions. Biological signaling by peptide ligands can be mediated through the enzymatic activation of the receptor resulting in the triggering of a defined biochemical pathway. Ultimately, a mitogenic or differentiation signal is delivered to the nucleus, completing the biological action of the growth factor. The biochemical mechanisms of signal transduction by the p185 neu/c-erbB-2 growth factor receptor and the subsequent physiological responses are the topics of this review. Study of the p185 growth factor receptor has helped to illustrate the functional role of receptor homo- (and hetero-) dimerization in enzyme activation and, in malignant cells, the detrimental results of structural mutations or aberrant gene expression which may effect this dimerization. The ability of one type of growth factor receptor to affect the activity of another (as illustrated by the p185/epidermal growth factor receptor heterodimeric complex) is likely to be a common regulatory feature of growth factor receptor action. The nomenclature to be used in this review will refer to the oncogenic mutated form of the rat protein as 'p185neu', the proto-oncogenic rat protein as 'p185c-neu' and the human form as 'p185c-erbB-2'. The term 'p185' will be used to refer to any type of protein, regardless of the source.