Rat aorta smooth muscle cells which express all three alpha 1-adrenoreceptors (alpha 1A, alpha 1B and alpha 1D) were used to determine the effect of stimulation of alpha 1-adrenergic receptor subtypes on cell growth. "Combined" alpha 1-adrenoreceptor subtype stimulation with norepinephrine alone caused a concentration-dependent, prazosin-sensitive increase in protein content and synthesis: 48 h of stimulation at 1 microM increased cell protein to 216 +/- 40% of time-matched controls (p = 0.008) and RNA to 140 +/- 13% (p = 0.03); protein synthesis increased to 167 +/- 13% (p < 0.01) after 24 h. Stimulation with norepinephrine plus the selective alpha 1A/alpha 1D antagonist 5-methylurapidil produced greater increases in alpha-actin mRNA (270 +/- 40% at 8 h; p = 0.007), total cell protein (220 +/- 45% at 24 h; p = 0.004), and RNA (135 +/- 8% at 24 h; p = 0.01). These effects were prevented by pretreatment with the selective alpha 1B antagonist chloroethylclonidine. Comparable results were obtained for intact aortae. Stimulation with norepinephrine plus 5-methylurapidil increased (p < 0.05) tissue protein, RNA, dry weight, and alpha-actin mRNA; and as in culture cells, combined stimulation with norepinephrine alone attenuated these responses. By comparison, adventitia (fibroblasts) was unaffected. Removal of endothelial cells had no effect. alpha 1B mRNA decreased by 42 +/- 12% (p = 0.01) in cultured cells during combined alpha 1-adrenoreceptor stimulation and by 23 +/- 8% (p = 0.03) for intact aorta. alpha 1D and beta-actin mRNA were unchanged in cultured cells, aorta media, and adventitia. These findings suggest that prolonged stimulation of chloroethylclonidine-sensitive, possibly alpha 1B-adrenoceptors induces hypertrophy of arterial smooth muscle cells and that stimulation of 5-methylurapidil-sensitive, non-alpha 1B-adrenoreceptors attenuates this growth response.