Mature airway smooth muscle cells are characterized by a low proliferative index and expression of contractile marker proteins such as smooth muscle alpha-actin (sm-alpha-actin), calponin, and smooth muscle myosin heavy chain (sm-MHC). In the present study, defined extracellular matrix (ECM) components were examined on the proliferative and phenotypic status of mitogen-stimulated, cultured human airway smooth muscle cells. The results demonstrate that although cells adhered and spread on plates precoated with (1 to 100 microg/ml) of fibronectin (FN), collagen I (Col I), laminin (LN), or Matrigel, their subsequent proliferative response varied qualitatively. FN and Col I enhanced proliferation in response to either platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)-BB or alpha-thrombin, compared with cells on plastic. LN, however, reduced mitogen-stimulated proliferation. A similar reduction was found in cells cultured on Matrigel. The effect of ECM substrates on contractile phenotype was determined by examining cellular expression of sm-alpha-actin, sm-MHC, and calponin using immunocytochemical and flow cytometric methods. Approximately 75% of PDGF-BB-stimulated cells, cultured on LN or Matrigel, expressed sm-alpha-actin, calponin, and sm-MHC, but only 8 to 10% stained for the Ki67 nuclear antigen proliferation marker. In contrast, more than 75% of cells cultured on FN or Col I were positive for Ki67 antigen, but only 20% were positive for contractile proteins. Flow cytometric analysis of sm-alpha-actin and DNA content confirmed the immunocytochemical findings and showed that the observed reduction in sm-alpha-actin content after culture on FN or Col I, compared with LN and Matrigel, occurred in the majority of the cell population, supporting bidirectional phenotype modulation. Overall, the data suggest that ECM substrates modulate both proliferation and phenotype of human airway smooth muscle cells in culture.