A biologic role for the 72-kDa gelatinase A (matrix metalloproteinase 2; MMP-2), beyond simple extracellular matrix turnover, was evaluated in glomerular mesangial cells. To determine the significance of MMP-2 secretion for the acquisition of the inflammatory phenotype, we reduced the constitutive secretion of MMP-2 by cultured mesangial cells with antisense RNA expressed by an episomally replicating vector or with specific anti-MMP-2 ribozymes expressed by a retroviral transducing vector. The phenotype of the transfected, or retrovirally infected, cells was profoundly altered from the activated state and closely approximated that of quiescent cells in vivo. The prominent differences included a change in the synthesis and organization of the extracellular matrix, loss of activation markers, and a virtually total exit from the cell cycle. Reconstitution with exogenous active, but not latent MMP-2, induced a rapid return to the inflammatory phenotype in vitro. This effect was specific to MMP-2, because the closely related MMP-9 did not reproduce these changes. Furthermore, this pro-inflammatory effect of MMP-2 is dependent upon the active form of the enzyme, which can be produced by an autocatalytic activation process on the mesangial cell plasma membrane. It is concluded that MMP-2 acts directly upon mesangial cells to permit the development of an inflammatory phenotype. Specific inhibition of MMP-2 activity in vivo may represent an alternate means of ameliorating complex inflammatory processes by affecting the phenotype of the synthesizing cells, per se.