Incompletely processed gastrins have been postulated to play a role in growth of the gastrointestinal tract, but few studies have examined the effects of progastrin on mucosal proliferation in vivo. Human gastrin gene expression and progastrin processing were therefore studied in transgenic mice containing a human gastrin (hGAS) minigene, and compared to processing in mice bearing an insulin gastrin (INS-GAS) transgene that overexpresses amidated gastrin. Progastrin processing was studied using region-specific antisera and radioimmunoassays, biosynthetic labeling, immunoprecipitation, and HPLC. Proliferative effects due to overexpression of processed and unprocessed gastrin in INS-GAS and hGAS mice, respectively, were determined using routine histology and BrdU incorporation. The pancreatic islets of INS-GAS mice were able to produce carboxyamidated G-17, resulting in a twofold elevation of serum amidated gastrin, marked thickening of the oxyntic mucosa, and an increased BrdU labeling index (LI) of the gastric body. In contrast, livers of adult hGAS mice expressed abundant human gastrin mRNA and human progastrin but were unable to process this peptide to the mature amidated form, resulting in markedly elevated serum progastrin levels and normal amidated gastrin levels. Nevertheless, there was a marked increase in the BrdU labeling index of the colon in hGAS mice (LI 7.46+/-1.90%), as well as in INS-GAS mice (LI 6.16+/-1.17%), compared to age-matched, wild type control mice (LI 4.01+/-0.98%, P < 0.05). These studies suggest that incompletely processed gastrin precursors may contribute to colonic mucosal proliferation in vivo.