The effects of porcine interleukin-1 (IL-1) alpha on collagen production were studied in cultured human rheumatoid synovial cells. Addition of 0.05-5 ng of IL-1/ml into the cultures resulted in a dose-dependent decreased rate of collagen released into the medium over 24 h. To determine whether this inhibition was due to secondary action of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) secreted in response to IL-1, cultures were incubated in presence of various inhibitors of arachidonate metabolism. Depending on the cell strains, these inhibitors were able to suppress or diminish the effect of IL-1, suggesting that PGE2 is involved in the mechanism. Depression of collagen production caused by IL-1 mainly affected type I collagen and therefore led to a change in the type I/type III collagen ratio in the extracellular medium. Steady-state levels of mRNA for types I and III procollagens were estimated by dot-blot hybridization and compared with the amounts of respective collagens produced in the same cultures. IL-1 generally increased procollagen type I mRNA, but to a variable extent, as did indomethacin (Indo). Depending on the cell strain, the combination of indo and IL-1 could elevate the mRNA level of type I procollagen compared with Indo alone. These results did not correlate with the production rate of collagen in the medium, which was diminished by exposure to IL-1. The level of mRNA for collagen type III was not greatly changed by incubation with IL-1, and a better correlation was generally observed with the amount of type III collagen found in the medium. These data suggest that an additional control mechanism at translational or post-translational level must exist, counterbalancing the stimulatory effect of IL-1 on collagen mRNA transcription. It is likely that IL-1 could modulate the production of collagen in synovial cells by an interplay of different mechanisms, some of them limiting the effect of primary elevation of the steady-state mRNA level.