We have shown that basic fibroblast growth factor (FGF) is heterogeneously expressed by human pituitary adenomas and may be implicated as a growth stimulus for these tumors. There are four mammalian FGF receptor (FGFR) genes encoding a complex family of transmembrane tyrosine kinases. The prototypic receptor is composed of three Ig-like extracellular ligand-binding domains, a transmembrane domain, and a cytoplasmic split tyrosine kinase. Multiple forms of cell-bound or secretable isoforms of FGFR-1, -2, and -3 can be generated by cell- and tissue-specific alternative splicing, resulting in tissue-specific FGF function. Shifts in isoform expression accompany tumor progression in some systems. We examined the normal human adenohypophysis and 40 pituitary adenomas to determine the pattern of FGFR expression by reverse transcription-PCR; all tumors were characterized clinically and morphologically. Ribonucleic acid (RNA) was extracted from frozen tumor tissue and primers were used to distinguish messenger RNA of the secretable first Ig-like domain (I) and those of the transmembrane and kinase domains (K) of each FGFR subtype. The normal pituitary-expressed mRNAs for FGFR-1 I and K, FGFR-2 I and K, FGFR-3 I and K, and FGFR-4 I but not FGFR-4 K; this represents the first report of a truncated isoform of FGFR-4, indicating possible alternative polyadenylation sites in this receptor. Only 3 tumors had the same pattern of expression of the 4 FGFRs as the normal gland. Although all tumors expressed FGFR-1 I, 1 tumor did not express FGFR-1 K, suggesting the production of only a secretable form of FGFR-1 by this tumor. Four tumors were negative for FGFR-2 I and K; 6 expressed the secretable form only, and 17 expressed FGFR-2 K but not I. All tumors expressed FGFR-3 I; 14 had secretable forms only, and no tumors expressed FGFR-3 K alone. As in the normal gland, 13 tumors expressed only the secretable I form of FGFR-4. Unlike the normal pituitary, however, 22 expressed FGFR-4 I and K, indicating a possible tumor-specific transmembrane receptor. Five tumors were negative for FGFR-4 I and K. Expression of FGFR proteins was confirmed by immunohistochemical localization of the C-terminal portion of FGFR-1, -2, -3, and -4; the results correlated with the RNA data in each case. There was no correlation between tumor type, size, or aggressiveness and the expression pattern of FGFRs. Our study suggests that pituitary adenomas have altered FGFR subtype and isoform expression, which may determine their hormonal and proliferative responses to FGFs.