BACKGROUND Activating transcription factor 3 (ATF3), a member of the ATF/cAMP-responsive element binding (CREB) family of transcription factors, regulates cellular response to stress including oxidative stress. The aim of this study was to analyse the role of ATF3 in fibroblast activation in systemic sclerosis (SSc). METHODS ATF3 was analysed by reverse transcription quantitative PCR, western blot and immunohistochemistry. ATF3 knockout fibroblasts and mice were used to study the functional role of ATF3. Knockdown experiments, reporter assays and coimmunoprecipitation were performed to study the effects of ATF3 on Smad and activation protein 1 (AP-1) signalling. The role of c-Jun was analysed by costaining, specific inactivation and coimmunoprecipitation. RESULTS Transforming growth factor-β (TGFβ) upregulates the expression of ATF3 in SSc fibroblasts. ATF3-deficient fibroblasts were less sensitive to TGFβ, whereas ectopic expression of ATF3 enhanced the profibrotic effects of TGFβ. Mechanistically, ATF3 interacts with Smad3 directly on stimulation with TGFβ and regulates Smad activity in a c-Jun-dependent manner. Knockout of ATF3 protected mice from bleomycin-induced fibrosis and fibrosis induced by overexpression of a constitutively active TGFβ receptor I. Reporter assays and analyses of the expression of Smad target genes demonstrated that binding of ATF3 regulates the transcriptional activity of Smad3. CONCLUSIONS We demonstrate for the first time a key role for ATF3 in fibrosis. Knockout of the ATF3 gene reduced the stimulatory effect of TGFβ on fibroblasts by interfering with canonical Smad signalling and protected the mice from experimental fibrosis in two different models. ATF3 might thus be a candidate for molecular targeted therapies for SSc.