Lysophosphatidic acid (LPA) is an important constituent of serum and shares its mitogenic activity. Serum induction of several genes is regulated, at least in part, by sequences related to the c-fos serum response element (SRE). A Rat-2 fibroblast cell line containing the beta-galactosidase reporter gene under SRE control was treated with LPA. Lysophosphatidic acid induced a time- and dose-dependent increase in beta-galactosidase activity. After 5 hours of treatment with 1-oleoyl-LPA a 3-fold increase in beta-galactosidase activity was observed. In contrast, endogenous alkaline phosphatase activity did not change in parallel with the beta-galactosidase activity indicating that the induction was specific. Various LPAs with different acyl groups in the sn-1 position induced beta-galactosidase activity with a rank order potency of 1-oleoyl-LPA > 1-palmitoyl-LPA > or = 1-myristoyl-LPA > 1-stearoyl-LPA. Phosphatidic acid was approximately equal to 1-stearoyl-LPA. Neither the calcium ionophore (A23187) nor 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol 13-acetate, induced beta-galactosidase activity. These data suggest that LPA may exert some of its effects by regulation of SRE controlled genes.