Low density lipoprotein receptor-related protein (LRP) mediates the endocytosis of diverse ligands, including urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA) and its receptor, uPAR, which have been implicated in cellular migration. The purpose of this study was to determine whether LRP affects cellular migration. Murine embryonic fibroblasts (MEF) that are LRP-deficient due to targeted gene disruption and exotoxin selection (MEF-2), heterozygous fibroblasts (PEA-10), and wild-type fibroblasts (MEF-1) were compared. When cultures were denuded of cells in a 1-mm-wide strip, all three cell types migrated into the denuded area. The MEF-2 cells migrated nearly twice as rapidly as the MEF-1 cells or PEA-10 cells. The difference in migration velocity was duplicated in culture wells that were precoated with serum or vitronectin and partially duplicated in wells coated with fibronectin but not in wells coated with type I collagen or Matrigel. uPA was detected in MEF-2 conditioned medium (CM) at a concentration of 0.30 +/- 0.02 nM, which was 13-fold higher than the level detected in MEF-1 CM or PEA-10 CM, suggesting one potential mechanism for the enhanced migration of MEF-2 cells. uPAR was also increased on MEF-2 cells by 4-5-fold, as determined by PI-PLC release, and by 2.5-fold, as determined by a uPA/uPAR activity assay. Mannosamine treatment, which down-regulates cell-surface uPAR, decreased MEF-2 migration by 40% without significantly affecting MEF-1 migration. MEF-2 CM, which is uPA-rich, increased the rate of MEF-1 migration, and MEF-1 CM did not. These studies demonstrate alterations in cellular migration and in the activity of the uPA/uPAR system which accompany complete deficiency of LRP expression in fibroblasts. We propose that uPA and uPAR form an autocrine loop for promoting fibroblast migration and that LRP counteracts the activity of this system.