Regulation of the synthesis of procollagen and other extracellular matrix components was examined in human skin fibroblasts obtained from donors of various ages, from fetal to 80 years old (in vivo aged), and in fetal fibroblasts at varying passage levels (in vitro aged). Growth rates and saturation densities of fibroblasts decreased with increasing age of the donor and after passage 20 of fetal fibroblasts. The rates of collagen and proteoglycan synthesis also decreased during both types of aging to about 10-25% of the rate in early passage fetal fibroblasts, whereas the synthesis of total noncollagenous proteins was not greatly affected. Decreased collagen synthesis in both types of aging was correlated with lower steady-state levels of mRNAs for the two subunits of type I procollagen mRNA, although their regulation was not coordinate. Type III collagen mRNA levels also declined in both types of aging. The concentration of fibronectin mRNA also decreased during in vitro aging but more rapidly than the collagen mRNAs, whereas in fibroblasts from 51-80-year-old donors, it was similar to or higher than in early passage fetal fibroblasts. This study suggests that the decreased synthesis of procollagen and proteoglycans in in vivo aged fibroblasts represents changes that are responsible for intrinsic degenerative changes that occur in human skin during aging. Furthermore, although in vitro and in vivo aging were similar in many respects, they were not equivalent, as evidenced by the differences in regulation of fibronectin expression.