Tubulointerstitial changes in the diabetic kidney correlate closely with the decline in glomerular filtration. In this study, we used a cell culture system of mouse proximal tubule epithelial cells to test the effects of glucose on cell growth, size, and matrix biosynthesis. [3H]thymidine incorporation was significantly inhibited in cells grown in 450 mg/dl glucose, compared with cells grown in 100 mg/dl glucose. The cells grown in the higher glucose concentration were slightly larger, their protein content and the total protein synthetic rate were significantly increased, and they secreted approximately twice as much procollagens type IV and type I. Concordantly, steady-state procollagen mRNA levels were also increased: 2.6-fold for the alpha 1(IV) and 2.2-fold for the alpha 2(I) procollagens. Additionally, nuclear run-off studies demonstrated that procollagen gene transcription rate was stimulated approximately 50%; beta-actin transcription rate was not altered. We used chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) reporter gene constructs to determine whether the increased transcription rate of alpha 2(I) gene was associated with activation of its enhancer sequence. Cells transfected with the enhancer demonstrated more than fivefold increase in CAT activity when cultured in the high-glucose medium. These studies demonstrate a multitude of effects of high ambient glucose concentrations on proximal tubule cell growth and collagen biosynthesis; cell proliferation is decreased although cell hypertrophy occurs. Procollagen gene transcription rate is stimulated and this response contributes to the observed increase in procollagen mRNA content. Activation of an enhancer sequence may be one possible mode through which high glucose levels increase the transcription of procollagen type I, presumably involving trans-acting factor(s).