Increases in intraglomerular pressure are known to predispose to the development of glomerular sclerosis, which is characterized by accumulation of extracellular matrix within the glomerulus. Glomerular mesangial cells are exposed to pulsatile capillary pressures and are a potential target for mechanical stress. In the present studies, we subjected cultured rat mesangial cells to continuous cycles of stretching and relaxation (stretch/relaxation) and examined alterations in extracellular matrix gene expression. After 48 h of stretch/relaxation, immunofluorescent localization of matrix accumulation indicated increases in types I, III, and IV collagens, fibronectin, and laminin, with the greatest increases seen at the periphery of the culture dish, at the point of the greatest deformation. Northern blot analysis of total RNA revealed time-dependent induction of alpha1(I) collagen, alpha1(III) collagen, alpha1(IV) collagen, fibronectin, and laminin by stretch/relaxation, with maximal increases occurring between 12 and 24 h. Transient transfection of reporter gene constructs of the 5' flanking region of alpha1(I) collagen gene indicated that stimulation of gene transcription was involved in the increased expression of matrix mRNA. Gelatinolytic activity in conditioned media was decreased at 24 and 48 h of stretch/relaxation, in association with a significant decrease in levels of mRNA for matrix metalloproteinase-2 (68-72 kD type IV collagenase) occurring within 6 h of stretch/relaxation. In contrast, expression of tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-2 was increased within 12 h of stretch/relaxation. Stretch/relaxation increased immunoreactive TGF-beta at 48 but not 12 h. TGF-beta1 mRNA levels remained unchanged during the initial 12 h of stretch/relaxation, but were significantly elevated at 48 h, and no differences in TGF-beta bioactivity could be detected in conditioned media for up to 12 h of stretch/relaxation. These findings demonstrate that in glomerular mesangial cells, repeated cycles of stretching and relaxation lead to matrix accumulation by stimulating production of extracellular matrix and decreasing activity of degradative enzymes. The observed induction of TGF-beta1 suggests a role in matrix accumulation occurring in response to continued mechanical deformation.