In rat liver epithelial cells constitutively expressing transforming growth factor alpha (TGFalpha), c-Met is constitutively phosphorylated in the absence of its ligand, hepatocyte growth factor. We proposed that TGFalpha and the autocrine activation of its receptor, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), leads to phosphorylation and activation of c-Met. We found that there is constitutive c-Met phosphorylation in human hepatoma cell lines and the human epidermoid carcinoma cell line, A431 which express TGFalpha, but not in normal human hepatocytes. Constitutive c-Met phosphorylation in A431, HepG2, AKN-1, and HuH6 cells was inhibited by neutralizing antibodies against TGFalpha and/or EGFR. Exposure to exogenous TGFalpha or EGF increased the phosphorylation of c-Met in the human epidermoid carcinoma cell line, A431. The increase of c-Met phosphorylation by TGFalpha in A431 cells was inhibited by neutralizing antibodies against TGFalpha and/or EGFR and by the EGFR-specific inhibitor tyrphostin AG1478. These results indicate that constitutive c-Met phosphorylation, and the increase of c-Met phosphorylation by TGFalpha or EGF, in tumor cell lines is the result of the activation via EGFR. We found that c-Met in tumor cells co-immunoprecipitates with EGFR regardless of the existence of their ligands in tumor cells, but not in normal human hepatocytes. We conclude that c-Met associates with EGFR in tumor cells, and this association facilitates the phosphorylation of c-Met in the absence of hepatocyte growth factor. This cross-talk between c-Met and EGFR may have significant implications for altered growth control in tumorigenesis.