Vitamin C deficiency causes morphologic changes in the endothelial and smooth muscle compartments of guinea pig blood vessels. Endothelial cells synthesize the basement membrane components, type IV collagen and laminin, and smooth muscle cells synthesize elastin in blood vessels. Therefore, we examined the possibility that vitamin C deficiency affects the expression of these proteins. Decreased expression of types I and II collagens in other tissues of vitamin C-deficient guinea pigs is associated with weight loss and the consequent induction of insulin-like growth factor binding proteins; thus we also used food deprivation to induce weight loss. Female guinea pigs received a vitamin C-free diet, supplemented orally with ascorbate. Vitamin C-deficient guinea pigs received the same diet but no ascorbate, and the food-deprived group received no food, but were supplemented with vitamin C. Concentrations of mRNAs for basement membrane components and elastin in blood vessels were measured by Northern blotting; overall basement membrane metabolism was assessed by measuring immunoreactive laminin and type IV 7S collagen in serum. Laminin mRNA in blood vessels and serum laminin concentrations were unaffected by vitamin C deficiency. Concentrations of type IV collagen and elastin mRNAs in blood vessels were not significantly affected in moderately scorbutic guinea pigs (0-7% weight loss), but with increased weight loss, type IV collagen mRNA was 57% (P < 0.05) and elastin mRNA was 3% (P < 0. 01) of normal values. In food-deprived guinea pigs, type IV collagen mRNA was 51% (P < 0.05) and elastin mRNA was 35% (P < 0.05) of normal. Serum type IV 7S collagen concentrations were 25% of normal in scorbutic guinea pigs with extensive weight loss. The lower expression of type IV collagen and elastin mRNAs in blood vessels may contribute to defects observed in blood vessels during scurvy.