Epidermal growth factor (EGF), which plays an important role in normal and tumoral cell growth regulation, displays an ambivalent dose-dependent effect on the proliferation of epithelial cells overexpressing EGF receptor. However, the underlying molecular mechanisms remain obscure. In this study we have examined the regulation of amphiregulin (AR) gene expression by growth inhibitory (10(-9) M) and stimulatory (10(-12) M) EGF concentrations in A431 cells. The time course of AR messenger RNA (mRNA) accumulation was different with 10(-12) and 10(-9) M EGF; AR induction by 10(-9) M EGF peaked between 1 and 1.5 h, then decreased to the basal level within 2 h. Conversely, the induction by 10(-12) M EGF was slightly delayed, but persisted for 4 h. The involvement of tyrosine phosphorylation in AR induction by EGF was suggested by the ability of the tyrosine phosphatase inhibitor sodium orthovanadate to prolong AR expression induced by 10(-12) or 10(-9) M EGF. In the presence of the protein phosphatase 2A inhibitor, okadaic acid, 10(-9) M EGF induced a persistent accumulation of AR mRNA. On the contrary, okadaic acid abrogated the stimulation of AR mRNA level induced by a low EGF concentration, suggesting that both EGF concentrations activated distinct regulatory mechanisms. The signaling components involved in the differential activities of EGF in A431 cells were then examined. We previously reported a relationship between the ambivalent activity of EGF and the p42-mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase activity. Thus, 10(-12) M EGF induced a sustained MAP kinase activation, whereas 10(-9) M EGF led to a sharp, but transitory, activation. The MAP kinases are activated by MAP kinase kinases (MEK1 and MEK2). Whereas no significant effect of 10(-12) M EGF could be detected, 10(-9) M EGF was shown to activate MEK1 and, to a lesser extent, MEK2. Also, both MAP kinase activation and AR induction by 10(-9) M, but not by 10(-12) M, EGF were inhibited by the MEK1 inhibitor PD98059. Moreover, the involvement of c-Raf-1 in the signaling pathway induced by EGF was verified. A concentration of 10(-9) M EGF induced stimulation of c-Raf-1 kinase activity, whereas 10(-12) M EGF not only failed to activate c-Raf-1, but led to a moderate decrease in its kinase activity. These results demonstrate that in EGF receptor-overexpressing cells, EGF may differently affect gene expression and cell proliferation through distinct mechanisms of regulation.