Platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) is a potent mitogen and vasoactive polypeptide for aortic smooth muscle. Because contractile glomerular mesangial cells synthesize a PDGF-like molecule and may respond to PDGF released by infiltrating cells at the site of glomerular inflammation, we studied the effects of exogenous, highly purified PDGF on 1) contraction of cultured rat mesangial cells and 2) membrane phosphoinositide turnover and cytosolic free calcium ([Ca2+]i), as putative mechanisms of membrane signal transduction. PDGF, 10(-11) and 10(-10) M, contracted 56.1 +/- 5.2 and 72.9 +/- 6.4% of the cells, respectively, with an average decrease of cross-sectional area of 22.0 +/- 2.6 and 28.1 +/- 2.7% of basal, as assessed by image-analysis microscopy. PDGF also rapidly increased total water-soluble inositol phosphates, measured after anion-exchange chromatography on perchloric acid-extracted cells, and simultaneously raised [Ca2+]i, measured by the fluorescent intracellular probe fura-2, from basal levels of 83.1 +/- 6.8 to a peak of 229.4 +/- 20.0 nM. We conclude that PDGF stimulates contraction of rat mesangial cells via a phospholipase C-dependent pathway, with potential relevance to the control of glomerular hemodynamics and mesangial proliferation in immune-mediated glomerular disease.