Fibroblasts in parenchymal organs potentially contribute extracellular matrix to local fibrogenic processes. This contribution, in some circumstances, may be initiated by cytokines disseminated from inflammatory lesions. Different populations of fibroblasts, however, might respond distinctively to this cytokine bath depending on the microenvironment in which they reside. We have begun to explore this issue using syngeneic, low-passage fibroblasts cultured in serum-free media that were derived originally from the dermis (DFBs) and from tubulointerstitium (TFBs) of the kidney. Our findings indicate that, while fibroblasts from each compartment appear similar at the ultrastructural level, there are a variety of functional differences which distinguish their proliferative response, and their collagen secretory response (types I, III, IV, and V) following challenge with various doses of immune-relevant cytokines (TGF beta, EGF, IL-1, IL-2 and gamma IFN) in culture. DFBs, for example, express more surface EGF receptors than do TFBs, and, as a consequence, exhibit a more robust proliferative response to EGF in serum-free media. Unstimulated DFBs also secrete more collagen types I and III than TFBs, while unstimulated TFBs secrete more types IV and V. The expression of these collagens in TFBs was confirmed by Northern blot hybridization. When these sets of fibroblasts were further stimulated by cytokines, some of the cytokines not only differentially effect the secretion of various species of collagens within the same group of cells, but also between cells from populations which are anatomically distinct. DFBs, furthermore, at mid-level doses of cytokine, demonstrated a general trend towards less secretion of all types of collagen (particularly for TGF beta, EGF, and IL-2), while TFBs seemed less repressive. In TFBs the cytokine-induced responses for collagen types I and III tended to be discordant, and for types I and IV EGF inhibited, while TGF beta stimulated the secretory process. These findings speak collectively for the presence of a functional heterogeneity among organ-based populations of syngeneic fibroblasts in normal tissues.