Hepatic metabolism and gene expression are among the factors controlled by the cellular hydration state, which changes within minutes in response to aniso-osmotic environments, cumulative substrate uptake, oxidative stress and under the influence of hormones such as insulin. The signalling events coupling cell-volume changes to altered cell function were studied in H4IIE rat hepatoma cells. Hypo-osmotic cell swelling resulted within 1 min in a tyrosine kinase-mediated activation of the extracellular signal-regulated protein kinases Erk-1 and Erk-2, which was independent of protein kinase C and cytosolic calcium. Activation of mitogen-activated protein kinases was followed by an increased phosphorylation of c-Jun, which may explain our recently reported finding of an about 5-fold increase in c-jun mRNA level in response to cell swelling. Pretreatment of cells with pertussis or cholera toxin abolished the swelling-induced activation of Erk-1 and Erk-2, suggesting the involvement of G-proteins. Thus, a signal-transduction pathway resembling growth factor signalling is activated already by osmotic water shifts across the plasma membrane, thereby providing a new perspective for adaption of cell function to alterations of the environment.