We examined the expression of interstitial collagenase and its enzymatic activity in lung damage induced by tobacco smoke. Guinea pigs were exposed to the smoke of 20 cigarettes per day from 1-8 wk. Age-matched guinea pigs were used as controls. At 6 and 8 wk of smoke exposure, lungs exhibited interstitial and peribronchiolar inflammation and moderate emphysematous changes. In situ hybridization of injured lungs revealed patchy expression of collagenase mRNA mainly in macrophages but also in alveolar epithelial and interstitial cells. Immunoreactive protein was detected in alveolar macrophages and in the alveolar walls and interstitium. Collagenolytic activity increased beginning in the 4th wk of exposure (0.7 +/- 0.43 micrograms collagen degraded/mg collagen incubated relative to 0.23 +/- 0.14 in controls; P < 0.05). At 6 and 8 wk, values were 0.85 +/- 0.34 and 0.98 +/- 0.33 compared with 0.25 +/- 0.11 and 0.26 +/- 13 in controls (P < 0.005 and 0.001). Collagen concentration decreased from 50.7 +/- 8.5 mg/g dry wt in control lungs to 40.2 +/- 5.0 and 42.9 +/- 6.0 at 6 and 8 wk of exposure, respectively (P < 0.05). These results strongly suggest that increased interstitial collagen degradation plays a role in the development of lung emphysema.