The dose-dependent alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) reactivity of different types of tumor cells and normal embryonal fibroblasts, which are capable of taking up AFP, was investigated. High doses (more than 100 micrograms/ml) of purified human AFP were shown to induce strongly dose-dependent growth inhibition of human hepatoma HepG2 cells, human lymphoblastoma MT4 cells, lymphoma Jurkat cells and murine fibroblastoma L929 cells. Human mammary carcinoma MCF-7 cells also revealed a growth inhibitory response to AFP, although to a lesser extent. Equivalent doses of human serum albumin (HSA) demonstrated no effect on these cells. On the contrary, normal embryonal fibroblasts of different organ origin showed dose-dependent stimulation (50-90%) of proliferation in response to AFP. A similar stimulative effect was obtained when embryonal fibroblasts were treated with the same doses of HSA. The myeloblastoma cell line U-937 and the normal epidermal fibroblast cell line M19 were shown to be resistant to the AFP action over a wide range of protein concentrations. It was demonstrated that growth factor deprivation (i.e. low serum concentration) could stimulate U-937 cell proliferation in response to high doses of AFP. It was also shown that intensive washing of U-937 and MCF-7 cells with fresh medium to remove secreted cytokines and growth factors distinctly increased cell sensitivity to high-dose-AFP-induced growth-inhibitory activity. Low AFP concentrations (less than 100 micrograms/ml) failed to induce growth inhibition in all studied cells and rather showed a slight stimulative effect. These findings demonstrate that physiological levels of AFP can exhibit a dose-dependent growth-regulatory activity toward sensitive tumor or developing cells. Our data demonstrated that AFP could reveal either stimulative or inhibitory growth activity, depending on the relative concentration of AFP and on exogenous or endogenous cytokines and growth factors in the cell culture medium. A growth-stimulative activity in normal embryonal fibroblasts and certain tumor cell lines exhibited by low AFP concentrations is supposed to result from the synergistic effects of AFP and various other secreted growth factors.