Mechanical forces clearly regulate the development and phenotype of a variety of tissues and cultured cells. However, it is not clear how mechanical information is transduced intracellularly to alter cellular function. Thermodynamic modeling predicts that mechanical forces influence microtubule assembly, and hence suggest microtubules as one potential cytoskeletal target for mechanical signals. In this study, the assembly of microtubules was analyzed in rat aortic smooth muscle cells cultured on silicon rubber substrates exposed to step increases in applied strain. Cytoskeletal and total cellular protein fractions were extracted from the cells following application of the external strain, and tubulin levels were quantified biochemically via a competitive ELISA and western blotting using bovine brain tubulin as a standard. In the first set of experiments, smooth muscle cells were subjected to a step-increase in strain and the distribution of tubulin between monomeric, polymeric, and total cellular pools was followed with time. Microtubule mass increased rapidly following application of the strain, with a statistically significant increase (P<0.05) in microtubule mass from 373+/-32 pg/cell (t=0) to 514+/-30 pg/cell (t=15 minutes). In parallel, the amount of soluble tubulin decreased approximately fivefold. The microtubule mass decreased after 1 hour to a value of 437+/-24 pg/cell. In the second set of experiments, smooth muscle cells were subjected to increasing doses of externally applied strain using a custom-built strain device. Monomeric, polymeric, and total tubulin fractions were extracted after 15 minutes of applied strain and quantified as for the earlier experiments. Microtubule mass increased with increasing strain while total cellular tubulin levels remained essentially constant at all strain levels. These findings are consistent with a thermodynamic model which predicts that microtubule assembly is promoted as a cell is stretched and compressional loads on the microtubules are presumably relieved. Furthermore, these data suggest microtubules are a potential target for translating changes in externally applied mechanical stimuli to alterations in cellular phenotype.