Primary or secondary hyperoxaluria is associated with calcium oxalate nephrolithiasis, interstitial fibrosis and progressive renal insufficiency. Monolayer cultures of nontransformed monkey kidney epithelial cells (BSC-1 line) and calcium oxalate monohydrate (COM) crystals were used as a model system to study cell responses to crystal interactions that might occur in the nephrons of patients during periods of hyperoxaluria. To determine if COM crystals signal a change in gene expression, Northern blots were prepared from total renal cellular RNA after the cells were exposed to crystals. The immediate early genes c-myc, EGR-1, and Nur-77 were induced at one hour. At two to six hours stimulated expression of the genes encoding plasminogen activator inhibitor (PAI-1) and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)-A chain was detected, but constitutive expression of urokinase-type plasminogen activator (u-PA) was not altered. Expression of connective tissue growth factor (CTGF) was induced at one hour and persisted up to 24 hours. The stimulation of gene expression by COM crystals was relatively crystal- and renal cell-type specific. Thus the interaction of kidney epithelial cells with COM crystals alters expression of genes that encode three classes of proteins: transcriptional activators, a regulator of extracellular matrix (ECM), and growth factors. Activation of PAI-1 gene expression without a change in u-PA favors accumulation of ECM proteins, as does increased expression of PDGF and CTGF which can also stimulate fibroblast proliferation in a paracrine manner. These results suggest that COM crystal-mediated stimulation of specific genes in renal tubular cells may contribute to the development of interstitial fibrosis in hyperoxaluric states.