BACKGROUND: TGF-beta1 modulates the cellular expression of extracellular matrix (ECM) in several renal cell systems in vitro and is considered a determinant of ECM accumulation in tubulointerstitial fibrosis. METHODS: We evaluated the effects of TGF-beta1 on collagen transcription, expression, and removal of the relevant collagens by rat tubuloepithelial cells (NRK 52E) and both rat and monkey interstitial fibroblasts (NRK 49F, CV1) in vitro. RESULTS: TGF-beta1 upregulated the expression of alpha1(III) collagen by fibroblasts (+300%) without affecting its removal. In parallel, a threefold increment of COL3A1 mRNA was found. Experiments of cell transfection employing CV1 fibroblasts as the unique suitable model, and chimaeric constructs of COL3A1 and COL5A2 promoters fused to the luciferase reporter gene, demonstrated a twofold stimulation of a large 1436 COL3A1 promoter construct and negligible effects on shorter fragments, suggesting the presence of a positive responsive element in a region of COL3A1 promoter between -1375 and -579. TGF-beta1 did not influence COL5A2 mRNA and the relative promoter activity in renal fibroblasts. With NRK 52E cell line, TGF-beta1 induced comparable increment of both alpha1(III) collagen expression (+300%) and COL3A1 mRNA (+300%) without affecting the COL3A1 promoter activity of any constructs. TGF-beta1 also upregulated the expression of alpha2(V) collagen chain (+500%) and COL5A2 mRNA (+500%) with a stimulatory effect (+100%) on a 1177 bp fragment of COL5A2 promoter. In this case a relevant inhibitory effect of TGF-beta1, on removal of alpha2(V) by supernatants of NRK 52E was also observed, indicating a double regulatory role of the cytokine on both transcription and removal of this component of ECM. CONCLUSION: Taken together these data indicate that TGF-beta1 is a potent stimulator of alpha1(III) collagen expression by renal fibroblast cell lines in vitro, the basic mechanism being stimulation of COL3A1 transcription. With renal epithelial cell lines, TGF-beta1 mainly upregulated the expression of type V collagen with the most relevant effect on stimulation of collagen transcription and inhibition of its removal. Tubular epithelial cells and renal fibroblasts should play distinct roles in renal fibrosis induced by TGF-beta1 in vivo.