PURPOSE To investigate the effect of hormones and ocular growth factors on the expression of alpha-, beta-, and gamma-crystallins in rat lens epithelial and fiber cells. METHODS PDGF-AA, EGF, NGF, M-CSF, BMP-2, BMP-4, dexamethasone, and estrogen were tested for their ability to alter the spectrum of crystallins in explanted newborn rat lens epithelial cells or in vitro differentiating newborn rat lens fiber cells. The accumulation of alphaA-, aB-, betaA3/1-, betaB2-, and gamma-crystallin was measured by western blot and dot blot analysis. The morphology of the rat lens explants after culture was examined by hematoxylin-eosin staining, while crystallins were localized by immunofluorescence. RESULTS Only dexamethasone and PDGF-AA showed an effect on relative crystallin levels. In the presence of dexamethasone the amount of alphaB-crystallin was increased in lens epithelial cells, but dexamethasone did not affect the crystallin spectrum in fiber cells. In rat lens epithelial explants cultured with PDGF-AA an increase in beta- and gamma-crystallin expression was seen. The spectrum of beta- and gamma-crystallins synthesized differed from that present in lens fiber cells. The cells expressing beta- and gamma-crystallin after culture with PDGF-AA were scattered in the epithelial cell layer and retained an epithelial morphology. PDGF-AA did not change the spectrum of crystallins synthesized in lens fiber cells but did enhance the rate of fiber cell differentiation, in agreement with results of others. CONCLUSIONS Both dexamethasone and PDGF-AA influence crystallin gene expression in cultured rat lens epithelial cells. Dexamethasone enhances the expression of alphaB-crystallin while culturing in the presence of PDGF-AA caused an increase in beta- as well as gamma-crystallin synthesis. Since at least the gamma-crystallin genes are known to be silenced in epithelial cells by DNA methylation, PDGF-AA may be able to induce one of the steps towards fiber cell differentiation in some epithelial cells.