Pituitary adenylate-cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) has been shown to possess mitogenic activity in various tumor cells. The present study was designed to investigate signal transduction mechanisms and expression of the proto-oncogenes c-fos and c-jun linked to the mitogenic effect of PACAP in the pancreatic carcinoma cell line AR4-2J. PACAP-(1-27)-peptide and PACAP-(1-38)-peptide, but not the structurally related vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP), potently stimulated [3H]thymidine incorporation and cell number at doses of 0.1-10 nM. Both molecular forms of PACAP strongly increased formation of cAMP and inositol trisphosphate, elevated cytosolic Ca2+ levels and induced mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase activity. Quantitative reverse-transcription PCR revealed that PACAP-(1-27)-peptide and PACAP-(1-38)-peptide elevated c-fos mRNA levels 50-100-fold, whereas c-jun mRNA levels increased only moderately (2-3-fold). The effect of PACAP on c-fos and c-jun expression in AR4-2J cells was rapid (20 min), transient (1-2 h), dose-dependent IC50, 0.5 nM) and was abolished by the specific PACAP receptor antagonist PACAP-(6-38)-peptide or inhibitors of protein kinase C or tyrosine kinases. Compared with PACAP, epidermal growth factor and gastrin equipotently stimulated c-fos transcription whereas VIP, secretin, forskolin or phorbolester showed only marginal effects. Both PACAP (1-27)-peptide and PACAP-(1-38)-peptide strongly increased the DNA binding activity of the c-fos/ c-jun heterodimer transcription factor AP-1 at 10 nM and also stimulated AP-1 transcriptional activity up to 20-fold in AR4-2J cells. These findings indicate that the mitogenic effect of PACAP mediated via activation of the GTP-binding protein coupled PACAP/VIP-1 (PV1) receptor is linked to the MAP kinase cascade, increased expression of the proto-oncogenes c-fos and c-jun and activation of the heterodimeric transcription factor AP-1.