A number of studies have suggested that externally applied mechanical forces and alterations in the intrinsic cell-extracellular matrix (ECM) force balance equivalently induce changes in cell phenotype. However, this possibility has never been directly tested. To test this hypothesis, we directly investigated the response of the microtubule (MT) cytoskeleton in smooth muscle cells to both mechanical signals and alterations in the ECM. A tensile force that resulted in a positive 10% step change in substrate strain increased MT mass by 34 +/- 10% over static controls, independent of the cell adhesion ligand and tyrosine phosphorylation. Conversely, a compressive force that resulted in a negative 10% step change in substrate strain decreased MT mass by 40 +/- 6% over static controls. In parallel, increasing the density of the ECM ligand fibronectin from 50 to 1,000 ng/cm(2) in the absence of any applied force increased the amount of polymeric tubulin in the cell from 59 +/- 11% to 81 +/- 13% of the total cellular tubulin. These data are consistent with a model in which MT assembly is, in part, controlled by forces imposed on these structures, and they suggest a novel control point for MT assembly by altering the intrinsic cell-ECM force balance and applying external mechanical forces.