Induction of stromelysin and collagenase mRNAs in response to phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) and autocrine factors (CAF) was compared in primary cultures of lapine synovial fibroblasts and an immortalized line of these cells known as HIG-82. In both cell types, message induction was quicker for CAF than for PMA. Appearance of both stromelysin and collagenase mRNAs occurred earlier in HIG-82 cells and, unlike primary cells, HIG-82 cells partially resisted inhibition by cycloheximide. To determine whether differences in AP-1 activity could account for these observations, the induction of c-fos and c-jun mRNAs was studied in conjunction with gel shift assays for AP-1 binding. Both inducers increased the abundance of c-fos mRNA, although the response was weaker in HIG-82 cells. However, the increase in c- jun mRNA was more marked in HIG-82 cells; furthermore, this increase was sustained for over 6 h. Gel shift assays confirmed that in both types of cells PMA and CAF increased AP-1 binding activity. In primary cells, this activity was sensitive to cycloheximide, but in HIG-82 cells, there was only partial sensitivity to cycloheximide. The gel shift analyses and data from experiments using an AP-1-CAT reporter construct revealed, in many cultures, constitutive AP-1 activity in the absence of stromelysin and collagenase expression, suggesting that AP-1 alone is insufficient for matrix metalloproteinase induction. Antisense oligonucleotides to c-fos and c-jun strongly inhibited the induction of stromelysin mRNA in primary cells treated with PMA, but was only weakly active against message induction in HIG-82 cells. In neither primary cells nor HIG-82 cells did antisense oligonucleotides strongly inhibit stromelysin induction in response to CAF. These data suggest there may exist an AP-1-independent route to message induction or that factors other than c-FOS and c-JUN may be used in certain circumstances. Western blot analyses detected no marked difference between HIG-82 cells and primary cells in their resting levels of c-FOS and c-JUN. Thus the differences reported here between HIG-82 cells and primary cells in the kinetics and cycloheximide sensitivity of MMP induction may reside in their abilities to modify posttranslationally the relevant transcription factors.