1. Homocysteine is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The mechanisms by which elevated plasma concentrations of homocysteine are related to the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis are not fully understood. Therefore, we examined the effect of homocysteine on cell replication of rat cultured vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs) at concentrations similar to those observed in clinical studies. 2. The incorporation of [3H]-thymidine was used as a marker of mitosis. Homocysteine (250-500 microM) was a weak mitogen as compared to platelet-derived growth factor-BB (PDGF-BB, 1 nM) and serum (10%), but it potentiated the mitogenic effect of PDGF-BB four fold at 500 microM. This enhancement of mitogenesis was blunted by the addition of the scavenging enzyme catalase or the antioxidant N-acetyl-L-cysteine. 3. Furthermore, stimulation of VSMC with homocysteine (25-500 microM) decreased the glutathione peroxidase activity of the cells to 50% of control at 500 microM. Inversely, homocysteine enhanced the superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity to 137% of control at 500 microM, but it had no effect on the catalase activity. 4. Homocysteine decreased the activity of bovine purified liver cytosolic glutathione peroxidase in a time- and dose-dependent manner. The maximum decrease was 50%. 5. In summary, homocysteine has a weak mitogenic effect on VSMC, but it dramatically enhances the mitogenic response of PDGF-BB, presumably by disturbing the activity of antioxidant enzymes.