Hepatic stellate cells (HSC) participate in liver fibrogenesis via myofibroblastic activation, the extent of which appears to correlate with the loss of cellular vitamin A. The present study has tested a hypothesis that HSC activation is associated with diminished retinoic acid (RA) signaling. Pure HSC were isolated from rats with cholestatic liver fibrosis induced by bile duct ligation (BDL) and sham-operated animals (Sham). Northern blot analysis of HSC RNA from BDL confirmed fibrogenic activation of the cells with enhanced mRNA levels for procollagen-alpha1(I) and transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1). Competitive polymerase chain reaction analysis showed selective reductions in the mRNA levels of RA receptor (RAR)-beta and retinoid X receptor (RXR)-alpha to 20 and 17% of the Sham HSC. The mRNA level for cellular retinol binding protein I, a gene with RA responsive element (RARE), was also suppressed by 78% in BDL. The concentrations of all-trans-RA and 9-cis-RA were decreased in HSC from BDL. Nuclear extracts of these cells showed diminished binding activity to the RARE, whereas activity of AP-1, a transcription factor known to be antagonized by RAR and RXR, was enhanced. These results demonstrate diminished RA signaling in HSC from cholestatic liver fibrosis, which appeared to have resulted from RA deficiency and suppressed expression of RAR-beta and RXR-alpha. Furthermore, the reciprocal enhancement of AP-1 activity and coordinately increased expression of an AP-1 responsive gene, TGF-beta1, suggest a permissive role of the diminished RA signaling in promoting AP-1 activity and TGF-beta1 expression.