Investigations were undertaken to study the role of the protein cross-linking enzyme tissue transglutaminase in changes associated with the extracellular matrix and in the cell death of human dermal fibroblasts following exposure to a solarium ultraviolet A source consisting of 98.8% ultraviolet A and 1.2% ultraviolet B. Exposure to nonlethal ultraviolet doses of 60 to 120 kJ per m2 resulted in increased tissue transglutaminase activity when measured either in cell homogenates, "in situ" by incorporation of fluorescein-cadaverine into the extracellular matrix or by changes in the epsilon(gamma-glutamyl) lysine cross-link. This increase in enzyme activity did not require de novo protein synthesis. Incorporation of fluorescein-cadaverine into matrix proteins was accompanied by the cross-linking of fibronectin and tissue transglutaminase into nonreducible high molecular weight polymers. Addition of exogenous tissue transglutaminase to cultured cells mimicking extensive cell leakage of the enzyme resulted in increased extracellular matrix deposition and a decreased rate of matrix turnover. Exposure of cells to 180 kJ per m2 resulted in 40% to 50% cell death with dying cells showing extensive tissue transglutaminase cross-linking of intracellular proteins and increased cross-linking of the surrounding extracellular matrix, the latter probably occurring as a result of cell leakage of tissue transglutaminase. These cells demonstrated negligible caspase activation and DNA fragmentation but maintained their cell morphology. In contrast, exposure of cells to 240 kJ per m2 resulted in increased cell death with caspase activation and some DNA fragmentation. These cells could be partially rescued from death by addition of caspase inhibitors. These data suggest that changes in cross-linking both in the intracellular and extracellular compartments elicited by tissue transglutaminase following exposure to ultraviolet provides a rapid tissue stabilization process following damage, but as such may be a contributory factor to the scarring process that results.