This study examines endothelin-induced modulation of extracellular matrix synthesis and remodeling by fibroblasts, and its potential role in the pathogenesis of systemic sclerosis (scleroderma). Endothelin-1 promoted fibroblast synthesis of collagen types I and III, but not fibronectin, by a mechanism dependent upon both ETA and ETB receptors. Conversely, endothelin-1 inhibited both protein expression of matrix metalloproteinase 1 and zymographic activity exclusively via ETA receptors. A dual regulatory role for endothelin-1 in transcriptional regulation was suggested by the ability of endothelin-1 to enhance steady-state levels of collagen mRNA and activate the proalpha2(I) collagen (Col1a2) promoter, but in contrast to reduce matrix metalloproteinase 1 transcript expression and suppress transcription of a human matrix metalloproteinase 1 promoter reporter construct in transient transfection assays. Although endothelin-1 significantly enhanced remodeling of three-dimensional collagen lattices populated by normal fibroblasts, this was not observed for lattices populated by systemic sclerosis fibroblasts. Promotion of matrix remodeling was dependent upon ETA receptor expression and was blocked by specific inhibitors of tyrosine kinases or protein kinase C. Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, S1 nuclease, and functional cell surface binding studies showed that normal and systemic sclerosis fibroblasts express both ETA and ETB receptors (predominantly ETA), but that ETA receptor mRNA levels and ETA binding sites on fibroblasts cultured from systemic sclerosis skin biopsies are reduced by almost 50%. Endothelin-1 is thus able to induce a fibrogenic phenotype in normal fibroblasts that is similar to that of lesional systemic sclerosis fibroblasts. Moreover, reduced responsiveness to exogenous endothelin-1 in systemic sclerosis suggests that downstream pathways may have already been activated in vivo. These data further implicate dysregulated endothelin-receptor pathways in fibroblasts in the pathogenesis of connective tissue fibrosis.