Cells grown in 3-dimensional collagen gels adopt a nonproliferative, contractile phenotype which is more characteristic of cells in vivo than cells grown in 2-dimensional culture. The floating collagen gel contraction assay is a well-defined system used to study cell-extracellular matrix interactions grown in 3-dimensional culture. Although the cell biology of this system is well defined, the cell signaling associated with gel contraction has not been well characterized. In this study we demonstrate that fetal bovine (FBS) and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)-induced mesangial cell-collagen gel contraction is associated with increased tyrosine phosphorylation of a number of proteins including focal adhesion kinase (FAK) and the 42-kDa isoform of MAPK (ERK2). FBS-induced gel contraction is not affected by the presence of the MEK inhibitor PD098059. Low concentrations of PDGF-BB (10 ng/ml) induce gel contraction; however, at higher PDGF-BB concentrations (80 ng/ml) gel contraction is not observed. PDGF-BB-induced gel contraction as well as tyrosine phosphorylation of FAK are inhibited in the presence of the PI-3 kinase inhibitor wortmanin. Minimal autophosphorylation of the PDGF-beta receptor is observed under 3-dimensional culture conditions following PDGF-BB stimulation; however, when mesangial cells grown in 2-dimensional culture are exposed to PDGF-BB, the PDGF-beta receptor was prominently phosphorylated. We conclude that induction of collagen gel contraction by FBS and PDGF-BB is associated with tyrosine kinase phosphorylation and that these responses differ substantially from what occurs in 2-dimensional cultures in the presence of the same agonists.