Early studies showed that during hepatic fibrosis induced by bile duct ligation, fibroblasts within the portal tracts proliferate and express alpha-smooth muscle (SM) actin, suggesting that they may be involved in the deposition of extracellular matrix components in cholestatic fibrosis. Thus, we investigated the deposition of extracellular matrix components (laminin, fibronectin EIIIA, collagen I and IV, procollagen III, elastin, tenascin) as well as the expression of lysyl oxidase and of alpha-SM actin in the portal zone at 24, 48, and 72 hours and 7 days after ligation of the common bile duct. Rat liver tissues were processed for immunofluorescence, in situ hybridization, immunohistochemistry, and for electron and immunoelectron microscopy. At all times examined after bile duct ligation, laminin was observed essentially in the basal membrane of vessels and portal ductules. In sham-operated animals, the fibronectin EIIIA was present exclusively in vessels; at 24 hours postinjury, fibronectin EIIIA expression appeared in both the portal zone and along sinusoids. Two days after ligation, increased expressions of collagen I and IV, procollagen III, and elastin were observed within the portal zone, compared with sham-operated animals. The deposition of these components increased thereafter. Tenascin expression increased soon after bile duct ligation in stroma surrounding proliferating ductules, reaching a maximum at 48 hours; thereafter, expression was restricted to the periphery of proliferating ductules. By in situ hybridization, procollagen I and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-1 mRNA expression was greatly increased in periductular areas at 24 hours postligation and remained elevated throughout the experiment. At 24 hours, a strong reactivity for lysyl oxidase appeared in the portal zone, and, as in controls, alpha-SM actin expression was restricted to vascular SM cells. In the stroma adjacent to proliferating ductules, alpha-SM actin appeared at 48 hours, and the number of alpha-SM actin-positive cells increased until the 7th day. Lysyl oxidase staining increased until 72 hours after bile duct ligation, when it was located in areas surrounding the myofibroblastic cells. At 7 days, lysyl oxidase expression was restricted around myofibroblastic cells present at the periphery of the reactive tissue and appeared to extend into the surrounding parenchyma. These results show that after bile duct ligation, extracellular matrix deposition, and lysyl oxidase expression occur very early in portal connective tissue surrounding proliferating ductules, and precede myofibroblastic differentiation, ie, alpha-SM actin expression. In addition, the data are compatible with the suggestion that in the bile duct ligation model, myofibroblastic differentiation represents an adaptive response to modification of the extracellular matrix environment.