Epidermal growth factor (EGF) is a ubiquitous fibroblast mitogen which also stimulates the synthesis of the extracellular matrix degrading metalloproteinases, collagenase, and stromelysin. Using primary cultures of human skin fibroblast, we show that these metalloproteinase mRNAs are coordinately up-regulated by EGF; and that dexamethasone, a potent inhibitor of collagenase and stromelysin synthesis, coordinately down-regulates these EGF-induced mRNAs. Nuclear run-on assays showed that EGF increased transcription of collagenase and stromelysin approximately 2-fold over the untreated control, while repression by dexamethasone was difficult to detect. However, steady state mRNA levels were induced approximately 10-fold by EGF and co-treatment with dexamethasone decreased them to below control levels, suggesting modulation of mRNA stability. Thus, we measured the half-life of these mRNAs using "pulse-chase" methodology. Typically, the half-life of EGF-induced collagenase and stromelysin mRNAs was approximately 30 h, and co-treatment with dexamethasone decreased the half-life of these mRNAs by 30-50%. Additionally, we found that the transcription inhibitor DRB stabilized EGF-induced metalloproteinase mRNAs, suggesting an mRNA degradation pathway which requires transcription. Thus our data demonstrate that collagenase and stromelysin are coordinately regulated by EGF and by dexamethasone, primarily at the level of metalloproteinase mRNA stability.