Bovine vascular smooth muscle cells (SMC) express the urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor (u-PAR) claimed to be important in cell invasion. Receptor numbers and affinity are regulated by thrombin and several other mitogens involved in SMC proliferation. We investigated the effects of these mitogens on u-PAR mRNA levels. On continuous thrombin stimulation the u-PAR message in SMC was 10 +/- 2.3-fold elevated reaching a maximum between 6 and 9 hours and declining to control values within 48 hours. Thrombin present for 30 minutes on the cell surface produced similar effects. Stimulation with the thrombin receptor activation peptide S-F-L-L-R-N representing the NH2-terminus of the tethered ligand also increased u-PAR mRNA levels with an identical time course. D-Phe-Pro-Arg-chloromethyl ketone (PPACK) active site blocked thrombin and the catalytically inactive thrombin mutant S205A did not affect u-PAR mRNA levels. Thrombin stimulation also resulted in a 2 +/- 0.2-fold transient increase in thrombin receptor mRNA preceding the rise in u-PAR message. Transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF beta 1) and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) showed similar time courses for the elevation of u-PAR mRNA levels with a maximal 5.5 +/- 0.9 and 12 +/- 2.5-fold increase, respectively. Basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) and phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) showed a more prolonged effect increasing u-PAR mRNA levels 8 +/- 2.0- fold and 12.3 +/- 2.5-fold, respectively, within 6 hours but remaining 5 to 10-fold elevated at 48 hours. In order to decide if the u-PAR mRNA increase was due to message stabilization or a consequence of transcriptional activation we used the RNA polymerase II inhibitor 5,6- dichloro-1-beta-D-ribofuranosyl benzimidazole (DRB) during the stimulation experiments. u-PAR mRNA levels on TGF beta 1 stimulation of SMC decayed after the addition of DRB indicating that enhancement of transcriptional activity was involved in the induction. In contrast, the time course of u-PAR mRNA elevation on thrombin, bFGF, and PMA stimulation was not significantly altered in the presence of DRB suggesting that in these latter cases u-PAR mRNA message accumulation was at least in part due to mRNA stabilization. Increased transcriptional activity, mRNA stabilization and expression of u-PAR protein on the SMC surface in response to growth factors may facilitate enhanced cell surface protease activity, cell migration, and development of atheromatous lesions.