Regulation of TGF-beta1/Smad3 signaling in fibrogenesis is complex. Previous work by our lab suggests that ERK MAP kinase phosphorylates the linker region (LR) of Smad3 to enhance TGF-beta-induced collagen-I accumulation. However the roles of the individual Smad3LR phosphorylation sites (T179, S204, S208 and S213) in the collagen-I response to TGF-beta are not clear. To address this issue, we tested the ability of Smad3 constructs expressing wild-type Smad3 or Smad3 with mutated LR phosphorylation sites to reconstitute TGF-beta-stimulated COL1A2 promoter activity in Smad3-null or -knockdown cells. Blocking ERK in fibroblasts and renal mesangial cells inhibited both S204 phosphorylation and Smad3-mediated COL1A2 promoter activity. Mutations replacing serine at S204 or S208 in the linker region decreased Smad3-mediated COL1A2 promoter activity, whereas mutating T179 enhanced basal COL1A2 promoter activity and did not prevent TGF-beta stimulation. Interestingly, mutation of all four Smad3LR sites (T179, S204, S208 and S213) was not inhibitory, suggesting primacy of the two inhibitory sites. These results suggest that in these mesenchymal cells, phosphorylation of the T179 and possibly S213 sites may act as a brake on the signal, whereas S204 phosphorylation by ERK in some manner releases that brake. Renal epithelial cells (HKC) respond differently from MEF or mesangial cells; blocking ERK neither changed TGF-beta-stimulated S204 phosphorylation nor prevented Smad3-mediated COL1A2 promoter activity in HKC. Furthermore, re-expression of wild type-Smad3 or the S204A-Smad3 mutant in Smad3-knockdown HKC reconstituted Smad3-mediated COL1A2 promoter activity. Collectively, these data suggest that Serine-204 phosphorylation in the Smad3LR is a critical event by which ERK enhances Smad3-mediated COL1A2 promoter activity in mesenchymal cells.