In recent work we showed that the EGF receptor (EGFr) was activated in tumor promoter treated mouse epidermis (Cell Growth & Differentiation, 6: 1447-1455, 1995). In the present study, we have investigated the possible role of other erbB family members in the process of tumor promotion. Both erbB2 and erbB3, but not erbB4, were expressed in cultured mouse keratinocytes and in mouse epidermis in vivo. In cultured mouse keratinocytes, EGF stimulated rapid tyrosine phosphorylation of erbB2 followed by a time-dependent degradation of erbB2 protein. Furthermore, an increase in erbB2:EGFr heterodimer formation was also induced by EGF. In contrast to the results with erbB2, EGF did not induce tyrosine phosphorylation, the degradation of erbB3, or erbB3:EGFr heterodimer formation in cultured keratinocytes. Further analyses revealed that c-src kinase activity was dramatically elevated in cultured mouse keratinocytes exposed to EGF. In mouse epidermis following multiple treatments with 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA), the phosphotyrosine content of erbB2 was significantly elevated in a dose-dependent manner. Concomittantly, erbB2:EGFr heterodimer formation and c-src kinase activity were also elevated in TPA-treated epidermis. Structure-activity relationships with several phorbol ester analogs showed that the elevated phosphorylation of erbB2 in mouse epidermis followed closely with tumor promoting ability. Activation of erbB2 and c-src kinase were also observed in the epidermis of TGF alpha transgenic mice where expression of human TGF alpha was targeted to basal keratinocytes with the human K14 promoter. Collectively, the current data suggest that the activation of erbB2 in phorbol ester treated skin can be explained solely by a mechanism involving elevation of EGFr ligands and activation of the EGFr. In addition, activation of c-src may be an important downstream effector in mouse keratinocytes both in vivo and in vitro, following activation of the EGFr, erbB2, or both.