Plasminogen activator was previously shown to be induced by UV light in human cells with low capacity to repair UV-induced DNA lesions. We now show that in human fetal fibroblasts UV light enhanced the two mRNA species coding for the urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA) and the tissue-type plasminogen activator, but immunological analysis revealed exclusively uPA activity. Several independent and complementary experiments indicated that induction of uPA was mediated, apparently entirely, through a UV-induced, secreted protein (UVIS) in the growth medium of irradiated cells. First, elevation of uPA mRNA after irradiation was severely blocked by cycloheximide. Second, replacement of conditioned medium in irradiated cells while the rate of plasminogen activator induction was maximal rapidly and completely stopped any further increase in uPA activity. Third, addition of the same removed conditioned medium to nonirradiated cells mimicked UV light in enhancing the level of uPA activity as well as that of uPA mRNA. Fourth, UVIS activity was completely lost by treating the conditioned medium with trypsin but not with nucleases. Kinetic measurements indicated that the accumulation of UVIS rather than the induction of uPA by UVIS conferred the rate-limiting step in the overall process of uPA induction. Both UV light and UVIS acted synergistically with inhibitors of DNA repair for uPA induction. Based on these results, a model is proposed implicating relaxation of DNA torsional stress of an as yet undefined DNA sequence(s) in the induction of UVIS, which is then responsible for activation of the uPA gene.