Exposure to silica induces granulomatous lung inflammation evolving to fibrosis through yet unclear pathogenic mechanisms. We examined the expression of extracellular matrix remodeling molecules: collagenase 3, gelatinases A and B, and TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 in experimental lung silicosis. Rats were instilled with 50 mg of silica and sacrificed after 15 and 60 d. At 60 d a significant increase in lung collagen content was found (170.2 +/- 34.4 versus 88.2 +/- 20.8 microgram/mg in controls, p = 0.01). Gelatin zymography of bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) from 15 and 60 d revealed bands of progelatinase A and progelatinase B, and lung tissue zymograms showed in addition, the active gelatinase A form at 15 d. By in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry, early silicotic granulomas exhibited intense staining for all matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and TIMPs assayed. Labeling was restricted inside granulomas and surrounding areas. Late silicotic granulomas at 60 d showed lower MMP expression than did early lesions, and in highly fibrotic nodules scarce signal was usually found. TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 showed a moderate reduction in 60-d silicotic nodules. These findings suggest that an imbalance in the expression of MMPs and TIMPs may be implicated in extracellular matrix remodeling and basement membrane disruption during experimental lung silicosis.