Tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases regulate ECM degradation by matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). We have developed a mouse line deficient for tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases-3 (TIMP-3), the only TIMP known to reside within the ECM. Homozygous Timp-3-null animals develop spontaneous air space enlargement in the lung that is evident at 2 weeks after birth and progresses with age of the animal. As early as 13 months of age animals become moribund. Lung function, measured by carbon monoxide uptake, is impaired in aged null animals. Lungs from aged null animals have reduced abundance of collagen, enhanced degradation of collagen in the peribronchiolar space, and disorganization of collagen fibrils in the alveolar interstitium, but no increase in inflammatory cell infiltration or evidence of fibrosis in comparison with controls. Using in situ zymography, we show that lungs from aged null animals have heightened MMP activity over wild-type and heterozygotic animals. Finally, TIMP-3-null fibroblast cultures demonstrate enhanced destruction of ECM molecules in vitro. We propose that the deletion of TIMP-3 results in a shift of the TIMP/MMP balance in the lung to favor ECM degradation, culminating in incapacitating illness and a shorter life span.