Gastrin is mitogenic for several colon cancers. To assess a possible autocrine role of gastrin in colon cancers, we examined human colon cancer cell lines for expression of gastrin mRNA and various forms of gastrin. Gastrin mRNA was not detected in the majority of colon cancer cell lines by Northern hybridization but was detected in all human colon cancer lines by the sensitive method of reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Gastrin mRNA was quantitated by the competitive PCR method. The majority of cell lines expressed very low levels of gastrin mRNA (< 1-5 copies/cell); only one cell line expressed > 20 copies/cell. The mature carboxyamidated form of gastrin was not detected in any of the cell lines by radioimmunoassay or immunocytochemistry. Results suggested that either gastrin mRNA expressed by colon cancer cells was altered (mutated) or posttranslational processing of progastrin was incomplete. Gastrin cDNA from all the colon cancer cell lines had an identical sequence to the published sequence of human gastrin cDNA. Specific antibodies against precursor forms of gastrin were used, and significant concentrations of nonamidated (glycine-extended) and prepro forms of gastrin were measured in tumor extracts of representative colon cancer cell lines. The presence of precursor forms of gastrin suggested a lack of one or more of the processing enzymes and/or cofactors. Significant concentrations of the processing enzyme (peptidylglycine alpha-amidating monooxygenase) were detected in colon cancer cells by immunocytochemistry. Therefore, lack of other cofactors or enzymes may be contributing to incomplete processing of precursor forms of gastrin, which merits further investigation. Since low levels of gastrin mRNA were expressed by the majority of human colon cancer cell lines and progastrin was incompletely processed, it seems unlikely that gastrin can function as a viable autocrine growth factor for colon cancer cells. High concentrations of glycine-extended gastrin-17 (GG) (> 10(-6) M) were mitogenic for a gastrin-responsive human colon cancer (DLD-1) cell line in vitro. It remains to be seen if GG or other precursor forms of gastrin are similarly mitogenic in vivo, which may then lend credibility to a possible autocrine role of gastrinlike peptides in colon cancers.