The tyrosine kinase encoded by the MET proto-oncogene (p190MET) is the receptor for Hepatocyte Growth Factor/Scatter Factor (HGF/SF). Previous work has shown that autophosphorylation of p190MET enhances its enzymatic activity and that the major phosphorylation site is Tyr1235, located in the catalytic domain. This residue is part of a 'three tyrosine' motif, including Tyr1230, Tyr1234, and Tyr1235, conserved in several other receptor kinases. We studied the role of these tyrosines in the positive regulation of the p190MET kinase by site-directed mutagenesis. Substitution of either Tyr1235 or Tyr1234 with phenylalanine severely reduced the in vitro kinase activity toward exogenous substrates. Kinetic experiments showed that the residual activity of these mutants could still be enhanced by autophosphorylation. Phosphopeptide mapping indicated that, in the absence of Tyr1235, Tyr1234 is phosphorylated. Only the replacement of both Tyr1234 and Tyr1235 yielded a mutant which completely lost the ability to be activated by autophosphorylation. In stable transfectants expressing the HGF/SF receptor with single substitution of either Tyr1234 or Tyr1235 the response to HGF/SF was impaired. The ligand did not induce tyrosine phosphorylation of the receptor nor stimulated chemotaxis. These data show that Tyr1234 and Tyr1235 are critical for the activation of the HGF/SF receptor kinase both in vitro and in response to the ligand in intact cells.