The type 1 receptor for insulin-like growth factors (IGF-IR) plays an important role in the growth and transformation of several types of cells. We have investigated the role of IGF-IR number in IGF-I-mediated mitogenesis and transformation of mouse embryo fibroblasts. We have used R- cells (3T3-like cells originating from mouse embryos with a targeted disruption of the IGF-IR genes) transfected with a plasmid expressing the human IGF-IR cDNA to generate clones with receptor numbers ranging from zero to 10(6) receptors per cell. In this model, between 15,000 and 22,000 receptors per cell are sufficient to render mouse embryo cells competent to grow in serum-free medium supplemented solely with IGF-I. For growth in soft agar, 30,000 receptors per cell seem to be the minimum requirement. These experiments indicate that a small increment in the number of receptors per cell, well within the physiological range, can modulate the mitogenic and transforming activities of the IGF-IR in 3T3-like cells.