Our laboratory has shown that tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha) can regulate normal mammary epithelial cell (MEC) growth, morphogenesis, and, under certain circumstances, functional differentiation in a manner similar to epidermal growth factor (EGF). As TNF alpha has been shown to up-regulate EGF receptor (EGFR) expression and function in other systems, the present studies were undertaken to determine whether TNF alpha action in MEC was indirect through stimulation of the EGFR. An inhibitor of EGFR tyrosine kinase activity, PD158780, failed to block proliferation induced by 40 ng/ml TNF alpha and only partially inhibited growth in response to 2 ng/ml TNF alpha. PD158780 was also unable to suppress the extensive morphological development induced by either TNF alpha concentration. In contrast, the effects of TNF alpha and PD158780 on functional differentiation (i.e. casein accumulation) were time dependent. When measured on day 7 after 48 h of treatment, casein accumulation was unaffected by either concentration of TNF alpha or by PD158780. When assessed on day 21 after 16 days of treatment, however, casein levels were decreased by 40 ng/ml TNF alpha and increased by PD158780. Significantly, this PD158780-induced increase in casein was not observed in MEC that had been treated with both PD158780 and TNF alpha. These results thus suggest that EGFR tyrosine kinase activity is not necessary for TNF alpha action in normal MEC.