Human colon tumor cell lines that were adapted to grow in chemically defined medium were tested for their growth sensitivity to exogenous transferrin, insulin, and epidermal growth factor (EGF). Less differentiated cell lines, C and HCT116, were able to grow in the presence of a single peptide supplement, to respond synergistically to transferrin and insulin in combination, and to be insensitive to supplementation with exogenous EGF. The more differentiated cell lines, CBS and GEO, were found to respond to exogenous EGF in a concentration-dependent manner, to require at least two peptide factor supplements to support growth, and to respond synergistically when EGF was added to chemically defined medium that already contained transferrin and insulin. To investigate whether changes in the number or the affinity-classes of the EGF-receptor might be involved in any of these growth responses, changes in EGF-receptor number and dissociation constant were determined as a function of cell growth condition. The poorly differentiated HCT cell line HCT116 was found to undergo 28 to 64% increases in [125I]EGF-binding when its medium was supplemented with transferrin, insulin, or transferrin plus insulin. The more differentiated CBS cell line responded to all peptide supplements with decreases in [125I]EGF-binding ranging from 12 to 73%. These findings indicate that the actions of transferrin and insulin are fundamental to the growth regulatory mechanisms of these two differentiation classes of human colon tumor cell lines, but that their mechanisms are different.