Hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor (HGF/SF), a broad-spectrum and multifunctional cytokine, is essential for the development of tissues including tooth. Here it was found that the HGF/SF content of human dental papillae obtained from 8 to 16-year-old individuals decreased significantly with age. Cultured fibroblasts prepared from the dental papillae of individuals of different ages produced HGF/SF at almost the same rate, but the sensitivities of the cells to interleukin-1alpha and tumour necrosis factor-alpha for the production of HGF/SF increased with age. Generally, mesenchymal cells such as fibroblasts produce HGF/SF but do not express c-Met, a receptor for HGF/SF, yet fibroblasts in dental papilla and cultured fibroblasts prepared from dental papilla did express c-Met, as determined by immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization and reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction. Recombinant human [125I]iodo-HGF/SF specifically bound to cell-surface macromolecules with a mol. wt of 146,000, which is the same as that of the beta-subunit of c-Met. The physiological role of c-Met on fibroblasts in dental papilla is unknown, but the addition of 2 ng of HGF/SF per ml to the culture medium significantly stimulated DNA synthesis in the cells, as determined by pulse labelling with [3H]thymidine. Exogenous HGF/SF also stimulated secretion by the cells of vascular endothelial growth factor, a cytokine that induces blood vessel-formation. These results suggest that HGF/SF may be involved in tooth development via autocrine mechanisms.