The trabecular meshwork, a specialized tissue in the anterior chamber of the eye, plays a major role in the regulation of aqueous humor outflow. We studied the effects of ascorbic acid, a significant component in the aqueous humor, on gene expression of type I collagen in cultures of bovine trabecular meshwork cells. These cells were plated for 6 days, exposed to ascorbic acid in concentrations of 100, 250 and 500 micrograms/ml for 3 days and labeled with (3H)proline for the last 24 hrs. Cultures that did not receive ascorbic acid served as controls. Bacterial collagenase assays showed enhanced incorporation of (3H)proline into collagenous proteins in cultures treated with 100 and 250 micrograms/ml of ascorbic acid. Gel electrophoresis and fluorography revealed that ascorbic acid caused a 2.6- to 4.9-fold increase in production of alpha 1 (I) and alpha 2(I) collagen chains by trabecular meshwork cells. Such an increase was found, using a cDNA probe specific for pro alpha 1(I) chains, to be accompanied by an increase in steady-state mRNA levels. Similar findings were also yielded from in situ hybridization experiments. These results, coupled with previously demonstrated ascorbate-induced effects on glycosaminoglycan, fibronectin and laminin synthesis, suggest that ascorbic acid is a key mediator of the extracellular matrix production by trabecular meshwork cells. Fluctuations in its concentration may lead to alterations in the makeup and assembly of matrices underlying the cells.