During wound healing, dermal fibroblasts switch from a migratory, repopulating phenotype to a contractile, matrix-reassembling phenotype. The mechanisms controlling this switch are unknown. A possible explanation is suggested by the finding that chemokines that appear late in wound repair prevent growth factor-induced cell-substratum deadhesion by blocking calpain activation. In this study, we tested the specific hypothesis that fibroblast contraction of the matrix is promoted by a pro-repair growth factor, epidermal growth factor, and is modulated by calpain-mediated release of adhesions. We employed an isometric force transduction system designed to measure the contraction of a collagen matrix under tension by a population of NR6 fibroblasts transfected with the human epidermal growth factor receptor. By maintaining a fixed level of strain, we could monitor both the initial contraction and subsequent relaxation of the matrix. Epidermal growth factor stimulated a transient, dose-dependent increase in matrix contraction that peaked within 60 minutes and then decayed over the ensuing 3 to 6 hours. Calpain inhibitor I (ALLN) prevented epidermal growth factor-stimulated cell de-adhesion and resulted in a significantly slower decay of matrix contraction, with only a slight decrease of the peak magnitude of contraction. The mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase-1-selective inhibitor PD 98059 that blocks signaling through the extracellular signal-regulated kinase/mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway, required for epidermal growth factor receptor-mediated activation of calpain and de-adhesion, does not significantly affect the magnitude of matrix contraction within minutes of epidermal growth factor addition, but slows the decay similarly to calpain inhibition. Epidermal growth factor receptor signaling thus stimulates the complementary mechanisms of intracellular contractile force generation and calpain-mediated de-adhesion, which are known to coordinately facilitate cell migration. These findings suggest that calpain can act as a functional switch for transmission of intracellular contractile force to the surrounding matrix, with calpain-mediated de-adhesion reducing this transmission and corresponding matrix contraction. Countervailing processes that down-regulate calpain activation can, accordingly, direct the transition of cell function from locomotion to matrix contraction.