Mirex is a potent tumor promoter in 7,1 2-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA)-initiated female CD-1 mouse skin. Like 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA), mirex promotes papillomas that have a Ha-ras mutation; however, unlike TPA promotion, mirex promotion does not involve a general hyperplastic response. We used proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) and 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdU) immunohistochemical staining to further examine the proliferative capacity of mirex. The numbers of PCNA- and BrdU-positive epidermal S-phase cells were highly concordant in all treatment groups. Unlike a single application of TPA, a single application of mirex had little or no effect on the number of S-phase epidermal cells, and chronic application of mirex to mouse skin produced only minimal increases in S-phase cells. Moreover, mirex did not significantly alter the growth of BALB/MK-2 keratinocytes in media containing either 0.05 or 1.2 mM Ca++. These results suggest that mirex may have highly specific effects on the proliferation of initiated cells and support the existence of a unique mirex mechanism and/or distinct population of mirex-promotable mutant Ha-ras epidermal cells. To begin to address this issue of a distinct population of mirex-promotable mutant Ha-ras cells, we conducted a tandem experiment in which DMBA-initiated mice were treated twice weekly with a maximal promoting dose of mirex. Then, when the number of papillomas reached a plateau, these same mice were treated twice weekly with a maximal promoting dose of TPA. Mice treated with mirex developed a maximum of 6.4 papillomas/mouse. These mice were then promoted with TPA, which produced 8.9 additional papillomas/mouse for a total of 15.3 papillomas/mouse. The maximum tumor yields from other groups of mice treated with only TPA or mirex were 9.8 and 7.3 papillomas/mouse, respectively. Therefore, under these tandem conditions, tumor yields were additive, indicating that there are at least two distinct populations of mutant Ha-ras cells: one promoted by mirex and the other by TPA.