Decreased fibrinolytic capacity has been suggested to accelerate the process of arterial atherogenesis by facilitating thrombosis and fibrin deposition within developing atherosclerotic lesions. Type 1 plasminogen activator inhibitor (PAI-1) is the primary inhibitor of tissue-type plasminogen activator and has been found to be increased in a number of clinical conditions generally defined as prothrombotic. To investigate the potential role of this inhibitor in atherosclerosis, we examined the expression of PAI-1 mRNA in segments of 11 severely diseased and 5 relatively normal human arteries obtained from 16 different patients undergoing reconstructive surgery for aortic occlusive or aneurysmal disease. Densitometric scanning of RNA (Northern) blot autoradiograms revealed significantly increased levels of PAI-1 mRNA in severely atherosclerotic vessels (mean densitometric value, 1.7 +/- 0.28 SEM) compared with normal or mildly affected arteries (mean densitometric value, 0.63 +/- 0.09 SEM; P less than 0.05). In most instances, the level of PAI-1 mRNA was correlated with the degree of atherosclerosis. Analysis of adjacent tissue sections from the same patients by in situ hybridization demonstrated an abundance of PAI-1 mRNA-positive cells within the thickened intima of atherosclerotic arteries, mainly around the base of the plaque. PAI-1 mRNA could also be detected in cells scattered within the necrotic material and in endothelial cells of adventitial vessels. In contrast to these results, PAI-1 mRNA was visualized primarily within luminal endothelial cells of normal-appearing aortic tissue. Our data provide initial evidence for the increased expression of PAI-1 mRNA in severely atherosclerotic human arteries and suggest a role for PAI-1 in the progression of human atherosclerotic disease.