The contractile responses of cultured rat and calf endothelial cells (EC), vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC), and fibroblasts (FB) to vasoactive mediators (thrombin, serotonin, bradykinin, and histamine), forskolin, and cytochalasin B were compared. Cells were grown on a pliable silicone membrane, and contraction was assessed, using time-lapse video microscopy, by recording changes in the wrinkling of the silicone as the cells exerted tension on the surface. We found that all cells contracted in the presence of serum or thrombin and that VSMC and FB also contracted with serotonin stimulation. Bradykinin and histamine were not contractants in this system. Discrepancies between these results and reports of changes in permeability of endothelial layers in vitro and in vivo may be due to (1) the vascular segment from which EC were studied or (2) the possibility that certain mediators may provoke a noncontractile response that results in gap formation. Thus changes in vascular permeability, which occur during inflammation, may have both contractile and noncontractile components. Forskolin, known to indirectly inhibit myosin light-chain kinase activity, and cytochalasin B were potent relaxants, suggesting a similar smooth muscle-like contractile mechanism for all three cell types.