Human recombinant tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases (rTIMP) at 0.2-4.6 microM was found to stimulate the growth of normal human keratinocytes, in primary cultures on a plastic support, and to markedly increase their growth on a tridimensional culture system, the skin equivalent, as shown by histology, DNA measurements, and planimetry. In contrast, rTIMP had no effect on the growth of normal human fibroblasts. The growth of keratinocytes on extracellular matrix components produced by keratinocytes cultured in the presence or absence of rTIMP was similar, suggesting that rTIMP does not stimulate keratinocyte growth by modifying either the quantity or the composition of the extracellular matrix deposited. rTIMP was labeled with 125iodine in order to study its interaction with keratinocytes in culture. Binding of (125I) rTIMP to keratinocytes was found to be temperature and time dependent. Under steady-state conditions at 22 degrees C, one class of specific rTIMP binding sites was identified with KD of 8.7 nM and 135,000 sites/cell. Such findings are in keeping with the known potentiating effect of TIMP on erythroid precursors, and indicate that this protein has at least two distinct activities.