Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) is released in response to myocardial infarction and may play a role in regulating cardiac remodeling. Recently, HGF was found to inhibit the apoptosis of cardiac muscle cells. Because GATA-4 can induce cell survival, the effects of HGF on GATA-4 activity were investigated. Treatment of HL-1 cells or primary adult rat cardiac myocytes with HGF, at concentrations that can be detected in the human serum after myocardial infarction, rapidly enhances GATA-4 DNA-binding activity. The enhanced DNA-binding activity is associated with the phosphorylation of GATA-4. HGF-induced phosphorylation and activation of GATA-4 is abolished by MEK inhibitors or the mutation of the ERK phosphorylation site (S105A), suggesting that HGF activates GATA-4 via MEK-ERK pathway-dependent phosphorylation. HGF enhances the expression of anti-apoptotic Bcl-xL, and this is blocked by dominant negative mutants of MEK or GATA-4. Forced expression of wild-type GATA-4, but not the GATA-4 mutant (S105A) increases the expression of Bcl. xL. Furthermore, expression of the GATA-4 mutant (S105A) suppresses HGF-mediated protection of cells against daunorubicin-induced apoptosis. These results demonstrate that HGF protects cardiac muscle cells against apoptosis via a signaling pathway involving MEK/ERK-dependent phosphorylation of GATA-4.