The expression of hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor (HGF/SF) was studied in 12 mesothelioma cell lines characterized by either an epithelioid or a fibroblast-like phenotype. Conditioned media from these lines were analysed by bioassay and ELISA, and HGF/SF was detected in three cell lines, all with a fibroblast-like or mixed morphology. None of eight epithelioid cell lines expressed the factor. Thus, for these cell lines, the ability to secrete HGF/SF correlated with the cell phenotype. Following on from these observations, two cell lines, BR and BT, with a fibroblast-like and an epithelioid phenotype, respectively, were further investigated. Both cell lines expressed the Met receptor but only BR secreted HGF/SF. Both cell lines responded to exogenous HGF/SF treatment by a change of morphology but in different ways: BR became more elongated and bipolar, while BT formed more spread-out cell colonies. HGF/SF acted as a paracrine effector on the epithelioid BT cells and stimulated both cell-spreading and proliferation. Interestingly, BT cells spread but did not scatter in response to exogenous HGF/SF. In contrast BR cells showed only some stimulation of cell motility with HGF/SF and no increase in cell proliferation was observed. Because HGF/SF was previously found in the pleural effusion fluids of patients with malignant mesothelioma and in paraffin-embedded tumour tissues, it is concluded that HGF/SF may well stimulate the growth and spread of malignant mesothelioma in vivo by paracrine and/or autocrine mechanisms.