Hepatic lipocytes are perisinusoidal cells that have been thought to be analogous to tissue pericytes, a cell type with purported vasoregulatory properties. However, we and others have recently demonstrated that lipocytes acquire markers of smooth muscle cells or myofibroblasts only after liver injury, via a process termed "activation." In this study, we document lipocyte contractility on collagen lattices and examine the importance of activation in this process. In culture, lipocytes became contractile only after spreading and activating, coincident with expression of smooth muscle alpha actin, a marker of activation (1990. Virchows Arch. B Cell Pathol. 59:349). After 5 d in culture, lipocytes induced rapid and sustained contraction of collagen lattices (to 43.7 +/- 2.3% of their original size 24 h after detachment). There was no contraction of lattices containing hepatocytes. Scanning electron microscopy demonstrated intimate associations of lipocyte cell membranes and collagen fibrils. Reduction in cell volume during contraction was also prominent. Lattice contraction by lipocytes was proportional to cell number. Serum was a potent stimulator of lipocyte contraction, as were endothelin types 1, 2, and 3; the effect of serum and endothelin 1 were additive. Neither thrombin, angiotensin-II, serotonin, nor the cytokines PDGF and TGF beta induced contraction. Cytochalasin B treatment resulted in concentration-dependent inhibition of contraction. As a test of the in vivo relevance of the culture findings, lipocytes were isolated from fibrotic animals and examined immediately after adherence. Whereas lipocytes from normal liver were initially compact, smooth muscle alpha actin negative and noncontractile, cells from animals with hepatic injury due to CCl4 displayed an activated appearance, expressed smooth muscle alpha actin, and were contractile immediately after adherence. Additionally, IFN-gamma, an agent which blocks lipocyte activation (1992. Hepatology. 16:776), inhibited lipocyte contraction. The data document that normal (i.e., quiescent) lipocytes are not contractile, but that activation is associated with the development of contractility. These findings suggest that a role for lipocytes in organ contraction or vasoregulation may be confined to injured, not normal liver.