The balance between the activities of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and the tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases (TIMPs) is an important control point in tissue remodeling. Previous studies have demonstrated elevated expression of the MMPs collagenase and stromelysin-1 by aged human diploid fibroblasts compared to early-passage cultures. We show here that aging cells display an altered response to transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF beta 1) that selectively affects MMP mRNA expression. In both young and old cells, phorbol myristoyl-13 acetate (PMA) induced the expression of transcripts of collagenase, stromelysin-1, gelatinase-B, TIMP-1, and TIMP-3. In young cells, TGF beta 1 reciprocally modulated PMA-induced MMP and TIMP gene expression leading to reduced levels of transcripts for the MMPs and augmented accumulation of TIMP-1 and TIMP-3 mRNAs. However, repressing effects of TGF beta 1 on collagenase, stromelysin-1, and gelatinase-B RNA expression were not apparent in old cells, though induction of the TIMP genes was unimpaired. By electrophoretic mobility shift analysis the nuclear transcription factors AP1 and serum response factor (SRF) showed reduced levels of DNA binding activities in old fibroblasts compared to young cells. A probe for the TGF beta-inhibitory element (TIE) gave equivalent levels of complexes with nuclear extracts from both types of cells, though of different mobilities. We conclude that the effects of TGF beta 1 on MMP and TIMP gene expression involve different cellular intermediaries, and suggest that altered composition or modification of TIE binding factors in aging cells may underlie the failure of TGF beta 1-mediated transcription repression. This mechanism may contribute to elevated constitutive expression of MMPs in old cells and to the connective tissue deterioration that accompanies the aging process.