Epidermal growth factor (EGF), which plays an important role in the growth regulation of a large variety of normal and tumor cells, has been shown to display an ambivalent dose-dependent effect on the proliferation of epithelial cells overexpressing EGF receptor. In a previous study aimed at dissecting the biochemical events leading to this dual action in A431 cells which over express EGF receptor, we have reported a relationship between the dual stimulator/inhibitor effect of EGF and the activity of the serine/threonine p42 mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase. Indeed, a growth stimulatory concentration of EGF is shown to lead to a moderate but persistent activation of p42 MAP kinase. Conversely, an early peak of MAP kinase activation, that rapidly falls below the basal level, is observed in the presence of a growth-inhibitory concentration of EGF. To assess the mechanism of the p42 MAP kinase inactivation under circumstances of negative growth regulation by EGF, we have investigated the role of the serine/threonine phosphatase 2A in this process. A constitutive phosphatase 2A activity was observed in untreated cells, that decreases rapidly in response to both high and low EGF concentrations. However, after this early inactivation, the phosphatase 2A activity was completely reversed concurrently with MAP kinase inactivation, after 40 min of treatment with 10 nM EGF. Conversely, in cells treated with 1 pM EGF, phosphatase 2A activity remained below the control level during all the time of the treatment, in association with a sustained MAP kinase activation. These results suggest that MAP kinase inactivation is closely related to phosphatase 2A activation. We then investigated the effect of the serine/threonine phosphatase inhibitor okadaic acid on the MAP kinase inactivation and observed that okadaic acid, at a concentration reported to specifically inhibit phosphatase 2A activity, totally reverses the MAP kinase inactivation induced by long-term treatment with 10 nM EGF. Additionally, we have shown that the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide fails to affect the EGF-induced MAP kinase regulation, indicating that mitogen-induced protein phosphatases are not, or are only slightly, required in this regulation. In conclusion, our data demonstrate that the ambivalent action of EGF on the proliferation of A431 cells is associated with differential mechanisms of p42 MAP kinase regulation catalysed by the serine/threonine phosphatase 2A.