We have previously shown that treatment of postconfluent, quiescent rat vascular smooth muscle cells (SMC) with platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) dramatically reduced smooth muscle (SM) alpha-actin synthesis and SM alpha-actin mRNA abundance, suggesting a role for this mitogen in the control of SMC differentiation. In the present studies, we explored the molecular mechanisms whereby PDGF decreases SM alpha-actin mRNA levels. Treatment of postconfluent SMC with both platelet PDGF and recombinant PDGF-BB resulted in a dramatic and concentration-dependent decrease in SM alpha-actin mRNA levels. We observed no differences in efficacy between platelet PDGF and PDGF-BB, indicating that the PDGF-A chain is not required for the effect. The rate of decrease in SM alpha-actin mRNA abundance in PDGF-treated SMC was greater than that observed in cells treated with the transcriptional inhibitor, actinomycin D, with or without PDGF, indicating that PDGF induced a transcriptionally dependent destabilization of the cytosolic SM alpha-actin mRNA pool. This effect appeared selective for SM alpha-actin, in that there was no evidence of a similar change in non-muscle (NM) beta-actin mRNA stability following PDGF treatment. Results of nuclear run-on analyses showed no differences in SM alpha-actin transcription between PDGF- and vehicle-treated SMC at either 4 or 24 hours following treatment, demonstrating that decreases in transcription of the SM alpha-actin gene did not contribute to PDGF-induced changes in SM alpha-actin mRNA abundance. Results of these studies support a possible role for PDGF in regulation of SMC differentiation via a post-transcriptional control mechanism.