Immunocytochemical data has indicated that platelet-derived growth factor receptor beta-subunit (PDGFR beta) expression by connective tissue cells is up-regulated in many disease states. To investigate potential causes of this up-regulation, we have evaluated conditions that regulate PDGF receptor transcript levels in cultured diploid human fibroblast model systems. We found combinations of soluble mediators and cell "context," which can regulate receptor transcripts (and receptor protein) over a 50-fold range, with cell context factors being far more potent regulators than soluble mediators. For cells grown under standard monolayer conditions on plastic, levels of both PDGFR beta and PDGFR alpha increase 10-fold as culture density increases. Cells grown in suspension or in three-dimensional gels express 10- to 20-fold higher transcript levels than cells plated on plastic at comparable density and serum concentration. The soluble mediators tested, including 14 cytokines and conditioned medium from activated lymphocytes, have only modest effects on transcript levels. Lymph decreases PDGFR beta transcript expression 4-fold, suggesting that a component of interstitial fluid contributes to maintenance of the low basal level of expression in normal tissues. The mitogenic responsiveness of cells cultured at different densities parallels the level of PDGFR beta expression. Blocking anti-PDGF receptor antibodies decrease receptor availability and mitogenic responsiveness in parallel. In both cases, the striking overlap between the PDGF-BB binding and mitogenesis dose-response curves suggests that the level of PDGF receptor expression can limit responsiveness to PDGF. Overall, these results suggest that the up-regulation of PDGF receptor expression seen under pathological conditions may be due to disruption of the cell's normal environment/context/cell shape/cell attachment and that this could serve to ensure that a proliferative response to PDGF would occur only under conditions in which there had been significant tissue damage.