Transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) stimulates renal cell fibrogenesis by a poorly understood mechanism. Previously, we suggested a synergy between TGF-beta1 activated extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) and Smad signaling in collagen production by human glomerular mesangial cells. In a heterologous DNA binding transcription assay, biochemical or dominant-negative ERK blockade reduced TGF-beta1 induced Smad3 activity. Total serine phosphorylation of Smad2/3, but not phosphorylation of the C-terminal SS(P)XS(P) motif, was decreased by pretreatment with the MEK/ERK inhibitors, PD98059 (10 microM) or U0126 (25 microM). This effect was not seen in the mouse mammary epithelial NMuMG cell line, indicating that ERK-dependent activation of Smad2/3 occurs only in certain cell types. TGF-beta stimulated phosphorylation of an expressed Smad3A construct, with a mutated C-terminal SS(P)XS(P) motif, was reduced by a MEK/ERK inhibitor. In contrast, MEK/ERK inhibition did not affect phosphorylation of a Smad3 construct mutated at consensus phosphorylation sites in the linker region (Smad3EPSM). Constitutively active MEK (caMEK) induced alpha2(I) collagen promoter activity, an effect blocked by co-transfected Smad3EPSM, but not Smad3A. The effects of caMEK and TGF-beta1 on collagen promoter activity were additive. These results indicate that ERK-dependent R-Smad linker region phosphorylation enhances collagen I synthesis and imply positive cross talk between the ERK and Smad pathways in human mesangial cells.