We have recently shown that epidermal growth factor (EGF) is capable of positive regulation of IFN-gamma production, thus establishing a functional relationship between nonhemopoietic growth factors and the immune system. In order to study this relationship further, EGF and the EGF-related growth factors transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF-alpha) and vaccinia virus growth factor (VGF), which stimulate cellular proliferation via binding to the EGF receptor, were studied for their functional and physicochemical effects on IFN-gamma production. In contrast to the positive signal of purified murine EGF and recombinant human EGF (both at 1 nM), neither synthetic TGF alpha nor recombinant VGF were capable of restoring competence for IFN-gamma production by Th cell-depleted spleen cell cultures. TGF-alpha and VGF, in molar excess, also failed to block the helper signal of EGF for IFN-gamma production. Thus TGF-alpha and VGF failed to functionally compete for the EGF receptor in the murine spleen cell system. Both TGF-alpha and VGF stimulated murine 3T3 cell proliferation at concentrations similar to those of EGF, and thus their failure to provide help for IFN-gamma production was not due to a general lack of biologic activity. Binding studies with 125I-EGF suggest that the EGF receptor on murine lymphocytes is not constitutively expressed, but inducible by the T cell mitogen staphylococcal enterotoxin A. TGF-alpha did not compete with 125I-EGF for the induced receptor. The data suggest that lymphocytes express a novel inducible EGF receptor that differs from that expressed on cells such as 3T3 fibroblasts.