Methylation events play a critical role in the ability of growth factors to promote normal development. Neurodevelopmental toxins, such as ethanol and heavy metals, interrupt growth factor signaling, raising the possibility that they might exert adverse effects on methylation. We found that insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)- and dopamine-stimulated methionine synthase (MS) activity and folate-dependent methylation of phospholipids in SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cells, via a PI3-kinase- and MAP-kinase-dependent mechanism. The stimulation of this pathway increased DNA methylation, while its inhibition increased methylation-sensitive gene expression. Ethanol potently interfered with IGF-1 activation of MS and blocked its effect on DNA methylation, whereas it did not inhibit the effects of dopamine. Metal ions potently affected IGF-1 and dopamine-stimulated MS activity, as well as folate-dependent phospholipid methylation: Cu(2+) promoted enzyme activity and methylation, while Cu(+), Pb(2+), Hg(2+) and Al(3+) were inhibitory. The ethylmercury-containing preservative thimerosal inhibited both IGF-1- and dopamine-stimulated methylation with an IC(50) of 1 nM and eliminated MS activity. Our findings outline a novel growth factor signaling pathway that regulates MS activity and thereby modulates methylation reactions, including DNA methylation. The potent inhibition of this pathway by ethanol, lead, mercury, aluminum and thimerosal suggests that it may be an important target of neurodevelopmental toxins.