Progressive expansion of the mesangial matrix is one of the most characteristic histological features of diabetic nephropathy (DN). To determine the balance between the turnover and degradation of extracellular matrix (ECM) in renal tissue of patients with DN, we examined the expression of matrix metalloproteinase-3 (MMP-3), tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-1 (TIMP-1) and type IV collagen (IV-C) mRNAs using a high-resolution in situ hybridization. Patients were divided into three grades: mild (grade I), moderate (grade II) and severe (grade III) mesangial expansion and tubulointerstitial injury. The relationship between the expression of these mRNAs and degree of glomerular mesangial expansion and interstitial injury was also examined. Cells positive for each mRNA were observed in glomerular resident cells, including glomerular mesangial, epithelial and endothelial cells and cells of Bowman's capsule. A number of tubular epithelial cells and some infiltrating cells in the interstitium also expressed these mRNAs. The expression of MMP-3 mRNA and TIMP-1 mRNA was strongest in glomeruli of grade I and inversely correlated with mesangial expansion. In contrast, the expression of all three types of mRNA was correlated with the degree of interstitial injury. Our results indicate that IV-C, MMP-3 and TIMP-1 mRNAs are expressed in glomerular resident cells, tubular epithelial cells and infiltrating cells in renal tissue of DN, and suggest that their expression changes with the degree of mesangial expansion and interstitial injury. Altered expression of MMP-3 and TIMP-1 may be associated with the progression of DN.