We have examined the mechanism of signal transduction by the hemidesmosomal integrin alpha 6 beta 4, a laminin receptor involved in morphogenesis and tumor progression. Immunoprecipitation and immune complex kinase assays indicated that antibody- or laminin-induced ligation of alpha 6 beta 4 causes tyrosine phosphorylation of the beta 4 subunit in intact cells and that this event is mediated by a protein kinase(s) physically associated with the integrin. Co-immunoprecipitation and GST fusion protein binding experiments showed that the adaptor protein Shc forms a complex with the tyrosine-phosphorylated beta 4 subunit. Shc is then phosphorylated on tyrosine residues and recruits the adaptor Grb2, thereby potentially linking alpha 6 beta 4 to the ras pathway. The beta 4 subunit was found to be phosphorylated at multiple tyrosine residues in vivo, including a tyrosine-based activation motif (TAM) resembling those found in T and B cell receptors. Phenylalanine substitutions at the beta 4 TAM disrupted association of alpha 6 beta 4 with hemidesmosomes, but did not interfere with tyrosine phosphorylation of Shc and recruitment of Grb2. These results indicate that signal transduction by the alpha 6 beta 4 integrin is mediated by an associated tyrosine kinase and that phosphorylation of distinct sites in the beta 4 tail mediates assembly of the hemidesmosomal cytoskeleton and recruitment of Shc/Grb2.