Transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta is a central mediator in the progression of glomerulosclerosis, leading to accumulation of aberrant extracellular matrix proteins and inappropriate expression of smooth muscle alpha-actin in the kidney. Previously, we reported that disrupting the cytoskeleton diminished TGF-beta-stimulated type I collagen accumulation in human mesangial cells. As cytoskeletal signaling molecules, including the Rho-family GTPases, have been implicated in fibrogenesis, we sought to determine the respective roles of RhoA and Rac1 in HMC collagen I expression. TGF-beta1 activated both RhoA and Rac1 within 5 min of treatment, and this activation was dependent on the kinase activity of the type I TGF-beta receptor. TGF-beta1-stimulated induction of type I collagen mRNA expression and promoter activity was diminished by inhibiting Rac1 activity and was increased by a constitutively active Rac1 mutant, whereas inhibiting RhoA activity had no such effect. Rac1 activation required phosphatidylinositol-3-kinase (PI3K) activity. Furthermore, the PI3K antagonist, LY294002, reduced TGF-beta1-stimulated COL1A2 promoter activity and Rac1 activation. It also partially blocked active Rac1-stimulated collagen promoter activity, suggesting that PI3K activity contributes to both TGF-beta activation of Rac1 and signal propagation downstream of Rac1. Thus, while both Rac1 and RhoA are rapidly activated in response to TGF-beta1 in human mesangial cells, only Rac1 activation enhances events that contribute to mesangial cell collagen expression, through a positive feedback loop involving PI3K.