The human epidermal growth factor receptor (HER or ErbB) family consists of four distinct members, including the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor (EGFR, HER1, or ErbB1), ErbB2 (HER2 or neu), ErbB3 (HER3), and ErbB4 (HER4). Activation of these receptors plays an important role in the regulation of cell proliferation, differentiation, and survival in several different tissues. Binding of a specific ligand to one of the ErbB receptors triggers the formation of specific receptor homo- and heterodimers, with ErbB2 being the preferred signaling partner. We analyzed the levels of various ErbB receptor messenger RNAs in a series of nontransformed cell lines by real time quantitative RT-PCR. The cell lines chosen were derived from a variety of tissues, including pancreas, lung, heart, and nervous system. Further, we measured biological responses in these cell lines upon treatment with EGF, betacellulin, and two types of neuregulins, heregulin and sensory and motor neuron-derived factor. All cell lines examined expressed detectable levels of ErbB2. High levels of expression of ErbB3 were correlated with responsiveness to heregulin and sensory and motor neuron-derived factor, whereas high levels of EGFR expression were correlated with responsiveness to EGF and betacellulin. Moreover, the sensitivity of a cell line to ErbB ligands was also correlated with the levels of expression of the appropriate ErbB receptors in that cell line. These results are consistent with our hypothesis that appropriate biological responsiveness to ErbB ligands is determined by the levels of expression of specific ErbB receptor combinations within a given tissue.